Be a Toxic Employee

If I knew two years ago how to be a toxic employee, the knowledge would have saved me much grief.

In a recent piece on, David G. Javitch (from my neck of the woods) talks about toxic employees. He lists 8 “symptoms,” and anyone who fits the description he promptly labels “toxic” or “problem.”

So just what are the symptoms? They are many:

  • A decrease in or lack of productivity
  • A decrease in or poor morale
  • An increased frequency in arguments between the employee and others
  • A sense that the employee is increasingly frustrated because “things just aren’t going right”
  • A negative, antagonistic attitude
  • An increase in negative comments and personal attacks
  • An unwillingness to work overtime or stay late without reason
  • An unwillingness to “go the extra mile” while encouraging others to refuse as well

Other symptoms include infighting, backbiting, passive/aggressive behavior (aggressive actions done in a passive or weak manner), arguments or criticisms for the sake of being different or antagonistic, and an unwillingness to help out others in a culture that values providing input and assistance to colleagues.

For a creative team, even for a non-creative one, this is just plain wrong.

And God forbid that these employees start spreading their damned self-actualization to their teammates! Why, the whole command-and-control hierarchy could fall in on itself!

I want to be one of these employees. I don’t care if they broad-brush me with words like “toxic” and “problem.” I want to be self-aware and to treat my work as a profession, not “just a job.” The worst they can do is fire me.

So, how do you be a toxic employee? Here are some ideas.

  1. Look for solutions, not just problems. If you’re in a hopeless situation, it’s easy to feel negative. But look for ways to do things right. Find the people who need to be involved in making it happen. Lobby them. You may be ignored. You may be vilified. But remember, the worst they can do is fire you.

  2. Assume good intentions. Don’t assume everyone is out to get you. If someone asks you about a touchy subject, assume they just want more information. Be positive and enthusiastic. If someone challenges you, assume you don’t understand their point of view. Listen to them. They more they talk, the more you get to learn about them, the easier it will be for you to get them on board. Most of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People is about learning how to listen effectively.

  3. Commit, but only to what you can actually deliver. Generate a good reputation for yourself: Make promises, and keep them. Also do the converse. Refuse to commit to what you may not be able to deliver. Your commitment means nothing if you’ll commit even to the impossible. Make it clear that you can’t commit to unrealistic goals, but you will do what you can, which is a lot.

  4. Help your manager. You may work under a great manager in a troubled company. It’s happened. (But chances are he won’t stick around long.) If you don’t, re-frame your manager’s criticisms as constructive feedback. Find a mentor. Measure your own performance. Know your limits and respect them, even while looking for bona-fide ways to stretch them. Find ways to sell yourself on your manager’s goals. Understand the challenges your manager faces, and find ways to help him meet them.

  5. Help others. Always be looking for ways to help others be happy. This may mean connecting them with resources they need to do their jobs more easily. It may mean being a sounding board for other “toxic employees.” It may mean passing around a funny Dilbert. It may mean helping others find alternative employment. This is networking at its finest. Keith Ferrazzi has many more ideas in his book Never Eat Alone.

Maybe you can think of even more ways to be a toxic employee.


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Mr King is absolutely correct and Mr Javitch is clearly living in a sadly unenlightened state. I would never, ever hire someone with Mr Javitch’s attitudes.

It has been recognised for some time that employee attitudes are key indicators of management failure. This was, after all, the point missed in the US after WWII in relation to Deming, Juran and others.

Moreover, it has also been recognised that “difficult” employees can also be the most valuable. They may be the ones asking the challenging questions that no-one else can face up to, and we are all familiar with the programmer who is difficult to manage but is the only one who can produce the really shiny code out of a hat.

I really wish people like Javitch would just go away. Like, back to Mars. Leaving the rest of us to deal with real, oxygen breathing people.

Hi, lazyethel. Thanks for the kind words. Yours was my initial reaction when I read his piece. I was angry. And I do agree that following his advice would ignore and beat down the most valuable employees. Now, there are problem employees in the world, and some of them do crazy things you and I would never dream of. But managing conflict is a two-sided problem. And it’s dangerous to look down a list of symptoms and thereby label someone “problem employee.” We need to look at the whole relationship, not just at the other person. And we each need to ask ourselves, “How am I contributing to this problem? What can I do to alleviate it?”


I agree that Javitch is missing the mark on at least some of his criteria – particular working overtime. Even ignoring the ‘for no reason’ part, working overtime seldom improves productivity over the long term, and frequently hurts the company more than it helps. In business-speak, working overtime has negative ROI in the long term. See my article Overtime Considered Harmful for further discussion on this point.

I agree, Basil. Overtime is harmful. It’s another of those software process addictions we have.


Mr. Javitch has actually identified a common problem in organizations, but unfortunately, he’s confused the cause and effect. He lists a bunch of “symptoms” that, ostensibly, can be used to identify problem employees. In fact, as Mr. King notes, these are indeed often symptoms of problems in the workplace, but the symptoms only confirm the existence of the problem, not the cause. Often toxic employees do exist, and if they are not dealt with appropriately by management, they may result in “non-toxic” employees acting out.

The real indicators of a “toxic employee” as a root cause are:

Employees whose judgements are routinely questioned.
Employees whose decisions are routinely dismissed, and rarely carried out with enthusiasm.
Employees that few collaborate with willingly.

Unfortunately, managers are often reluctant to address the root cause, even when identified. They may have been involved in the hiring decision, and feel the need to justify their hire. Or they may themselves not be in position to effectively deal with the problem employee. To those employees who find themselves in the midst of such a situation, I think the only practical course of action consists of: a) always acting professionally and, b) build a paper trail.

[…] Although I think it overlooks the realities of poison employees, Be a Toxic Employee has good points about creativity and comfort levels in the workplace. […]

What Javitch has done is list the effects of bullying in the workplace (a.k.a. “mobbing”), well-documented to be the cause of all sorts of social and physical illnesses. It generally occurs when top management is either very weak or distant from the rest of the organization.

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