We all know how toxic difficult employees can be. They wreak havoc on morale, teamwork and productivity. The problem is, as leaders, we don’t always know which employees are actually toxic. According to a brand-new study by leadership development and conversation experts at Fierce Inc., only 18% of employees complain to management about coworkers who are making their lives hell. Just 24% actually confront the difficult individuals, and a full 54% simply ignore their problematic colleagues.
Fierce surveyed a thousand full-time employees across the U.S., so the data is not specifically representative of virtual employees. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the problem is more evident among virtual teams and hybrid teams. After all, it’s much easier to ignore coworkers when you don’t see them everyday, so that 54% is likely higher among virtual staff.
Additionally, earlier this year, I reported on a TINYPulse survey that indicated remote employees feel less connected to the team and valued by the company. So it’s possible that virtual staff don’t feel comfortable enough to talk to you about problem coworkers, especially if their complaints are about on-site workers because leaders often show favoritism and bias toward their co-located employees.
That aside, the thing that concerned me most about the Fierce study, is that of the people who mustered up the courage to speak to a supervisor about a toxic employee, 41 percent felt that management did nothing to address the situation. In other words, leaders ignored an opportunity to resolve an issue that was hurting the team’s performance. As a leader of virtual employees, it is all to easy to ignore trouble, but it’s imperative that you don’t.
You must confront toxic behaviors and difficult people. It’s your job. Do so by following these steps:
- Involve HR or your legal team if necessary. If the issue involves sexual harassment, bullying or another serious offense, don’t talk to the employee without first involving your HR department or legal team.
- Stop making excuses for people. People may be stressed. They may be dealing with some personal issues. They may have had a bad morning. Whatever. There is still no excuse for being nasty, argumentative, demanding or uncooperative. Treating people with respect and kindness; being a dependable team player; and doing your job to the best of your abilities are non-debatable and should be expected from everyone.
- Treat everyone the same. If your right-hand woman in the office is overstepping her authority, shut it down. If your brainiac over-achiever refuses to work with a teammate who “isn’t at his level,” shut it down. If your always-fun, laughter-inducing team member offends someone with his jokes … you got it … shut it down. Your feelings toward someone should never determine how much negative behavior you are willing to overlook. Everyone should abide by the same rules and team norms. If they don’t, it’s your responsibility to address the problem quickly.
- Meet face-to-face. If you can’t meet in the office, use video chat to discuss the issue with the person. You want to be able to reveal through your facial expressions the seriousness of the discussion, and you want to see that the person is taking you seriously. Never, ever, ever address negative behaviors over email, instant message or text.
- Decide if you should mediate a conflict. In some cases, you will want to bring employees together to discuss the issue. That prevents the “he-said, she-said” problem that often pops up when you meet with warring coworkers individually. For minor conflicts between two people, go this route. However, if multiple employees have filed grievances against a coworker, meet privately with the person. Otherwise, it will seem like you are ganging up on him or her. In this case, simply say “Multiple people have come to me about …” and continue.
- Be super specific. You need to explain exactly what the person has done. In a perfect world, you would have observed the negative behavior, and you can describe what you witnessed. However, if another employee complains about the person, say “It’s been brought to my attention that you …” Then describe the behavior in detail, and explain how it is damaging the team and why it is unacceptable.
- Establish expectations. It’s critical that you offers suggestions for how the employee can improve the behavior. More than that, set expectations for improvement. Document what you want to see change, agree on steps the employee will take to improve, and both of you sign off on it. That is important to prove you took the necessary steps to help turnaround the employee’s behavior.
- Cut bait. If the employee doesn’t change, be prepared to terminate him or her. One toxic employee can make the entire team ineffective.
Have you managed truly toxic virtual teammates? How did you manage the situation? Tell us all about it in the comments section.