April 14, 2022

How to stop difficult employees creating a toxic workplace

Managing gossip, bullying, and difficult employees in the workplace can be a time consuming and all too common action for employers. If the issue isn’t handled quickly, it can impact team morale, performance and potentially lead to a legal complaint.

There have been many conversations recently about workplace harassment, discrimination, sexism and wider diversity and inclusion problems which have highlighted just how many people experience a toxic work culture. And with more employees now returning to the office after a period of working remotely, these problems can return and cause issues.

In these instances, managers need to quickly identify any employee who’s causing an issue and take appropriate effective action, before the toxic behaviour becomes a bigger concern.

What do we mean by ‘a difficult employee’?

A difficult employee can be someone who does not act appropriately in the workplace. Mainly it’s someone who displays unprofessional behaviours, such as being negative and acting hostile. As a result of these behaviours, they can create a toxic work environment which impacts on those around them – something every organisation wants to discourage.

Banter

Time and time again tribunal cases have been won against organisations who have not managed office banter or gossip appropriately.

Banter can be explained as “playful and friendly exchanges of teasing remarks” that can be common in the workplace. But when can these “teasing remarks” become unwelcome? Well, anytime really, especially if someone is feeling they are being targeted, singled out and attacked.

It can be difficult for managers to know when to step in when it comes to office banter, as they might not want to “ruin the fun” if colleagues are enjoying a joke. But it’s much worse to be in the position where  banter has hurt or offended someone on your team, and you have to manage the consequences.

Instead, ensure a culture that discourages banter and focuses on inclusion. Not only does this make for a more pleasant and welcoming atmosphere – which may be to your advantage in a climate of recruiting difficulties – but could prove critical in defending your organisation against a claim that centres on the poor behaviour of one employee to another. Creating a workplace culture where people feel they can come forward to senior staff about issues like this is essential to stopping unwanted and inappropriate banter.

Gossip

Like banter, gossip can have a negative effect on the office environment. Gossip can create friction in the team, as colleagues may feel ‘cliques’ have formed that split the team up and isolate individuals. It can also spread unwanted personal information, and sometimes misinformation, which can be very stressful and upsetting for those involved.

If one person enjoys gossip in the workplace, they may spread the bad habit to other members of the team. Therefore office gossiping needs to be dealt with directly and quickly to prevent creating a toxic workplace where employees feel victimised.

Bullying

Any behaviour that can be described and unwanted and hostile can be considered bullying. Employees who appear helpful and engaged can also display negative, aggressive behaviours.

Examples of bullying at work can include putting people’s ideas down in meetings, giving a person lots more work than anyone else, making someone else seem unskilled, or anything that undermines or humiliates someone. If these employees are in a customer facing role, this may have an impact on both the individual and their colleagues’ ability to provide good customer service.

Taking action

It’s essential that employers, managers, and your HR team do not ignore negativity and address it as soon as possible. If you noticed these behaviours in your workplace, they may be part of, or in response to, a wider issue in the business, which is why it’s so important to take time to understand the bigger picture as well. Listen to the facts and if necessary, investigate any claims of bullying or harassment thoroughly.

Organisations must show they have taken all “reasonably practical” steps to prevent unprofessional behaviours entering the realms of discrimination or sexual harassment.

A few suggestions to do this include:

  • Putting the correct policies and procedures in place and making them accessible to all staff
  • Communicating these to staff when they join the workplace and ensure they have read them, drawing particular attention to Anti-Discrimination, Diversity, Inclusion policies and the Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures
  • Training managers to spot bad behaviour and deal with it properly
  • Conducting anonymous staff surveys to understand people’s opinions of the workplace where they’re able to highlight any issues

Having the right policies including Equal Opportunities, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Bullying and Harassment policies that express a zero tolerance of inappropriate behaviour is essential. Ideally these policies should provide clear examples of what behaviours are inappropriate, including nicknames, crude remarks, sarcastic comments and laughing or whispering about someone else.

If you have any concerns about your workplace culture, or how to manage a difficult employee, then consider using our HR Services. With it, you can access our 24/7 advice line for any HR or employment law issue or query.

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About the author

Stephen Johnson

About the author

Stephen Johnson

Stephen has over 25 years experience in private sector HR and management roles, working as a Manager for over 10 years and eventually moving into the financial services industry. In his current role as an HR Policy Review Consultant he develops, reviews and maintains our clients’ employment documentation. With extensive knowledge of management initiatives and HR disciplines Stephen is commercially focused and supports clients in delivering their business objectives whilst minimising the risk of litigation.

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