Michelle Mazur

Michelle Mazur

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It’s every manager’s worst nightmare: one of your team members has suddenly turned toxic.

“I define a toxic employee as somebody who is very unhappy in their career and is often angry and frustrated at work,” says Michelle Mazur, a communication consultant based in Seattle. “That person can then infect all of the other people in the office. It is like a disease.”

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We asked Mazur for her tips on dealing with toxic employee in the workspace.

Clear the air
“The first thing to do is acknowledge that you have a problem, and that it isn’t going to go away,” says Mazur. “Approach the situation with compassion, especially if they were a good employee in the past.” Mazur notes that simply asking, “You don’t seem very happy. Is everything okay?” can go along way.

Create a work plan
Mazur suggests putting together a performance plan with clear goals so that you and the employee can both figure out a plan for getting back on track. “The person might be bored because they are not being challenged. You have to ask if they are still a good fit.” Creating benchmarks and deadlines is also a good way to ensure both you and your employee are clear on goals and expectations.

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Consider how new hires fit into your culture
It’s easier to weed out toxic employees during the hiring process than it is to get rid of them once they’re through the door. Mazur knows of what she speaks. “I am more of a free spirit, and I found myself in a job that was a bad fit and more corporate. I was the toxic one,” she says, recalling a position early on in her career. “It was really about communication.”

When interviewing prospective new employees, Mazur suggests doing a ‘gut check’ on whether you can envision the person in your office. “Is this a person I would like to travel with?” Mazur asks. “Are there any signs of negativity when they talk about their previous employer?" Mazur notes that while everyone is on their best behavior during an interview, employers should be sure to ask questions that give insight into how employees behave in day-to-day situations.

Avoid commiserating with toxic co-workers
Mazur also cautions employees against letting toxic co-workers to latch onto them. “They probably do want to talk about what’s wrong and how they were slighted,” Mazur notes. Be firm and backing away. “Just say, ‘I get it, you are angry. You are upset. But we have a job to do. I am not interested in the drama.’”

Cut ties — as a last resort 
Firing people who previously contributed a great deal to your company is never easy. “But sometimes, if the situation is too far gone, the nicest thing you can do is let them go,” says Mazur. “If you’ve had multiple conversations and put a plan into place and you still see no change, you’ve done everything that you could.”