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Bob Corlett | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Bob Corlett | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Bob Corlett returns to the HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board. Bob has worked in staffing and consulting for over 25 years. He is the founder and President of Staffing Advisors, a retained search firm near Washington DC. He developed The Results-Based Hiring Process® and is one of Washington’s best known thought leaders on staffing and recruiting. Full Bio

Dealing with Toxic Employees

by Bob Corlett
Six months ago Lori became the new VP of Human Resources at a successful company with a reputation for strong management. During her interview, the CEO was candid about problems in the HR department – it was sluggish, bureaucratic and distrusted by the executive team. HR was not a real business partner with the operating units. Instead, the departments muddled along on their own while the HR team obsessed over how to properly fill out the forms – but tragically, they did not even do that particularly well.

Lori knew she needed to replace many of her existing employees.  Unfortunately, the worst performers had been with the company for decades. So all the institutional knowledge was locked up inside the heads of the poorest performers. Lori was deeply uncomfortable firing the only people who knew how things were supposed to work.

So instead of firing, Lori quickly filled a few vacant positions with strong people from outside the company. Yet, two or three new people cannot turn around a department of twenty employees. Alarmingly, Lori realized that her new hires were starting to befriend some of the toxic legacy employees. She worried that by doing nothing, her hard-charging new hires might slip into the old bureaucratic ways of the current team. Simultaneously, she worried that by moving too quickly to replace the toxic legacy employees, she would destabilize the team and alienate everyone left.   What to do?
When faced with toxic employees, most managers hesitate. They instinctively know that the most toxic people are the ones who sue. They know that the least employable people will pull every string to keep their current job (the job they appear to hate, by the way). Time races by as managers daydream about  an orchestra of pianos falling on the toxic people’s heads. But toxic people are like cockroaches – they can survive a nuclear blast. They will never leave on their own.

The only thing to do is fire them.

Lori debated calling it a layoff to help soften the blow.  But sometimes you need a public hanging to get your point across.  Sometimes it’s important to demonstrate there is a new Sheriff in town—that performance matters now. So Lori summoned her nerve and cut the dead wood loose. (She wasn’t stupid about it; she arranged outplacement and a fair severance package in exchange for the employees waiving their right to sue.)

And then a funny thing happened. The sun came up the next day. And good people on the team, who had suffered in silence for years without complaining, came up and to say “thank you” for finally getting rid of the toxic waste. Managers in other departments started to invite HR to meetings again. And Lori’s new hires said “I only befriended the toxic people to get what I needed, but now I can really get up and run, without them in my way.”  And with a few strategic terminations, Lori tipped the culture of her department.

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  • Great post. While unfortunate, I think in many cases you’re right. In my own experience, I have watched one toxic person impact an environment in such a profound way that a number of valuable employees, including myself, quit because of her behavior. It was a real shame because we were big company fans. I’ll never quite understand why the situation wasn’t remedied before such a major fallout took place – perhaps employees were not honest enough with management to effect change.

    That said, what do you suggest that HR do when faced with periodic toxicity? Being in the relocation business, we see a lot of employees grow angry (and potentially toxic) about having to relocate. Obviously, relocation employees are going through a very difficult time and the stress is understandable. Also, it usually fades once they are settled into their new homes.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on how to head this sentiment off at the pass – or insulate one transferee from another transferee’s stress.



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  • Nklingensmith

    Addition by subtraction, absolutely. You must remove the cancers in your company for a culture to survive. Culture first!

  • Kimrn_37

    I recently took a job as a manger with toxic employees who brag out how they get rid of managers, make them cry and so forth.  I have been holding them to policy & procedure and then I had to give a corrective action to an employee and now she is taking it who ever she can to get it removed from her record.  In the past they have been able to intimade others so they can get their way.  Some days I just want to give up

  • mike

    wow what a piece of shit you are, calling people cockroaches. what exactly do you do to contribute to society.

  • mike

    that said the first line of toxic employees usually exist in the HR department.

  • mike

    you bore me. you haven’t earned an opinion yet. another cancer on society

  • Trudor

    According to my experience, the most toxic employees are from HR.
    Insufficient abilities, arrogant, susceptible, greatest difficulty to get them to do a work, I actually don’t remember any HR that was ok.

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