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How to Handle Toxic Behavior in the Workplace

Human Resources

Toxic behavior that can contaminate the workplace environment isn't always easy to spot at first. But left unchecked, it can lead to workplace strife, sabotage productivity, demoralize workers, and may seriously harm a company's efforts to retain key employees.

So what exactly is toxic behavior? Here are some potential signs to watch for:

Spreading Office Gossip
Spreading office gossip, whether factual or not, can cause unwanted conflict and undermine working relationship throughout the workplace. This type of behavior can be genuinely poisonous to collaboration and teamwork.

Stealing the Spotlight
Claiming credit for someone else's achievements, seeking all the glory for a team project, downplaying the efforts of others in order to better highlight their own contribution - these behaviors  contribute little value to the workplace and could harm office morale in the process. Disciplinary action may be needed to address this type of behavior.

Intimidation of Coworkers
Some individuals obtain self-worth by intimidating or bullying those around them using verbal put-downs and aggressive body language; again, disciplinary action may be warranted.

Toxic behavior can include a wide spectrum of undesired actions; however, as an owner or manager, you can take decisive action to better ensure these behaviors are not a part of your workplace. 

Consider implementing clear-cut HR policies that encourage and even reward teamwork and collaboration.  Promoting and expecting mutual respect between co-workers should be a central message of management communications and demonstrated by all.  Consistent and fair treatment of employees can help to prevent toxic behavior that may arise when employees perceive they are being treated differently from the others.

If toxic behavior is brought to your attention, don't ignore it and hope it will just go away on its own (particularly if the toxic behavior establishes the need for an internal investigation). Always take such information seriously. Meet one-on-one with the individual alleged to have exhibited the behavior. "The goal here is to have a positive interaction with the employee, not an argument or negative confrontation," notes organizational psychologist David G. Javitch, Ph.D. "What you're attempting to do is determine the accuracy of your information as compared to the toxic employee's version."

Javitch advises these action steps:

  • Share your concerns, but avoid bombarding the employee with accusations.
  • Give the individual an opportunity to express his or her view of the situation.
  • Point out where inconsistencies or contradictions exist between what you've been told and what the employee is saying.
  • Make a decision about further action based on the employee's willingness (or unwillingness) to change his or her unacceptable behavior, if the behavior is confirmed.

Too much is at stake to allow toxic behavior to fester in your workplace. Be aware of what employees are saying and, if necessary, take lawful action to preserve an atmosphere of teamwork and collegiality.


This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.
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