Remember him/her? The colleague from hell, the one who talks down to colleagues, breeds discontent and causes problems for customers, colleagues and managers alike. Her behaviour is like a cancer on the organisation and results in water-cooler rumours, backstabbing, frequent arguments and lowered productivity.
Toxic employees can also impact your business by having the wrong type of conversation with clients, with devastating results. They can cause reputational and brand damage, which could in turn impact revenue negatively.
Such a person is generally referred to as a toxic employee. Bryan Hattingh, Founding Executive at Cycan, a business and leadership transition company urges decisive action.
“Toxic behaviour is like gangrene; it spreads very quickly. If your little toe’s got gangrene, you don’t wait until you are sort of ready to think about the fact that you are now going to have four toes – you cut it off,” he says.
However, he draws a distinction between an intrinsically ‘toxic’ employee – a “white ant” – and one who is displaying toxic behaviour at a point in time. The latter he calls “white anting”.
How do you recognise white ants? They are demeaning and undermining on an ongoing basis. They do not fit into the organisation and as a result spread negativity and discord within the company. Hattingh says although most people who display this sort of behaviour are masking poor performance, white ants can often be top performers.
“It is precisely because they are top performers that they hide so well (in big organisations) and get away with it for so long. People aren’t going to challenge or question them, worse still they will readily believe their negative speak,” he says.
Hattingh adapts a simple view – the best way to deal with a white ant is to get them to exit the organisation because no amount of nice conversations is going to get them to change.
“From a Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) point of view, it is much easier to terminate employment if the member of staff is disruptive than via non-performance,” Hattingh says.
However, employees that suddenly adopt white anting behaviour should be handled differently, Hattingh says.
“You have to look at what is causing the sudden change in behaviour. It could be a personality conflict between the member of staff and their manager. It could be that they have personal problems; maybe they are going through a divorce and are looking at life through a bitter, twisted and negative set of lenses,” says Hattingh.
He suggests sitting the employee down, finding out the source of their pain and helping them get over it. Someone in HR department with a psychology background could be of great help in this instance, Hattingh says.
White anting can also occur during periods of high stress or under unusual levels of sustained change, as is the case with mergers and acquisition. At such times management is often accused of under communicating.