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Toxic Effect

September 28, 2009
by Tim Tolan
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When an employee's bad attitude is poisoning the workplace, there are steps you can - and must - take to turn the tide

You can usually spot them a mile away. It's easy, as they don't travel in packs, preferring instead to be loners. When they do make it to the water cooler or break room - the crowd quickly evaporates. They can't seem to help themselves and their attitude tells the whole world just how miserable they are. It's infectious and toxic.

Members of your team who would rather be anywhere other than your organization have one foot on the boat and one foot on the island. Maybe you can help them jump. Once an employee has mentally “checked out,” the influence on your team can be very negative, and if left unchecked, could prove to be catastrophic.

What is the best way to deal with these types of employees? Why are they so miserable and why do they do what they do? Let's look at a few reasons.

No Written Performance Improvement Plan - Your highly unmotivated employees will not change their behavior unless formally advised to do so. Let's face it, if they are truly unhappy and causing you and your team that much misery, give them a chance to improve or tell them they can go somewhere else and be miserable. Life's too short. It may be time to place them on an improvement plan and give them a chance to turn things around. The plan must be in writing and be quite clear detailing the areas of their performance that need improvement. It should also contain a timetable for making meaningful changes as well as the consequences of making or failing to make the improvements.

Recognition - Perhaps employees feel they have done a good job, but haven't received any recognition from management for their efforts. If that's the case, and their performance is solid but their attitude is poor, find ways to integrate recognition into your performance appraisal. Make sure recognition is done in a public forum. People care about recognition in front of their peers. Some even prefer recognition over a financial reward. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. It matters.

Wrong Role - You may be dealing with complacency if employees no longer find the job challenging. Let's face it, people like to be challenged, not stuck in a mundane role they loath. Find a new role for these people or invest in night classes to help them acquire new skills. This might change their outlook on life, and help them find their work more satisfying and rewarding. They might even end up appreciating you for helping them find their “sweet spot.” We all want to grow and become better at what we do.

Too Far Gone - Sometimes it's just too late. They may have reached the point of no return, and nothing you can do or say can turn them around. Some managers wish the organizational problem would just “go away.” Unfortunately, it won't. These individuals must be dealt with to minimize the risk to other members of the team. Their attitude and overall outlook can poison the entire organization unless something is done to remove these toxic individuals. Failure for management to act could be perceived as weakness for allowing the negative behavior to continue. This is the time to look in the mirror, assess your own management and leadership skills, and take action. Deal with the problem.

Whatever you decide to do to deal with employees who have one foot out the door, do something. Chances are that nothing will change unless you make a move to improve the situation. Once you engage, you will be happier, your employees will benefit and you may find you have some real stars in your organization. Or you may help them decide that it's time to leave the island.

Tim Tolan is senior partner at Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT Practice. Tolan can be reached at, or at 843-579-3077, x 301. His blog can be found at /contributors/tim_tolan.

Healthcare Informatics 2009 October;26(10):52