Dealing with difficult employees is trickier in remote work, where supervision and performance tracking are more complicated. Use these tips to mitigate the effects of a toxic remote worker.
It’s one thing to manage a toxic employee in the office—and it’s another to do it remotely, where it’s more difficult to reach and monitor workers. And when we work remotely, toxic behavior can get worse: That slight toward a coworker is more easily sent in an instant message than said face-to-face. The added stress from the pandemic and being stuck at home can also exacerbate negative behaviors.
“I definitely see more conflict happening. I heard that from my clients when everyone went remote,” says Jamie Notter, a conflict resolution expert and workplace culture consultant.
Use these tips to manage toxic behavior and prevent it from spreading in a remote setting.
Identify Toxic Employees
The first step is to determine if a worker is simply struggling in a new environment or knowingly having an adverse effect on coworkers and your organization as a whole. Toxic workers are generally defined as those who are constantly negative and actively disengaged. They’re also likely to deflect blame and avoid personal responsibility.
With a workforce spread out, it’s easier for actively disengaged employees to ignore their coworkers and responsibilities, putting the rest of the team on the hook for unfinished work.
“If you have a culture where everyone’s performance is visible, this is not an issue,” Notter says.
Coordinate weekly or even daily team meetings to make sure all employees are on track. Project management software that assigns specific tasks to specific people can also keep a disengaged worker from flying under the radar.
Make it clear how employees need to work in a remote setting. This makes it difficult for a toxic employee to evade their responsibilities and claim they didn’t know of remote work expectations.
“Tell them: ‘Being in the team meeting was important before, but it’s critical now. Our performance expectations have changed, so excuses aren’t going to cut it for not being at this meeting,’” Notter says.
Empower Workers to Resolve Conflicts Directly
If an employee has a problem with a toxic coworker, encourage the former to engage directly with the latter instead of just messaging other employees about the conflict. A direct discussion solves the problem at its source. Rumors don’t circulate, and the toxic worker’s negativity doesn’t spread to the entire team.
If a coworker is having difficulty with this tough conversation, managers can arrange and mediate a discussion between the two parties to resolve conflicts. Notter says to make sure it’s a video meeting, as face-to-face communication will make it easier to pick up on tone and body language. Afterward, employees will feel more capable of dealing with toxic behavior themselves, which will limit its effects.
Establish Support Systems
Toxic behavior can take the form of chronic complaining: always remarking on unhappiness with remote work, being stuck at home, having too many responsibilities, and dealing with coworkers that the complainer perceives as underperformers.
Explain to toxic employees the impact of their negativity, but also let them know you are here to support them; after all, the pandemic has had a major impact on mental health, and organizations should take steps to help out. Support negative workers remotely by checking in regularly, providing tools to cope with stress, and being flexible with their work hours so they can achieve better work-life balance—letting them sign off to take care of their kids, for example.
Know When to Let Go
Taking these actions can diminish the impact of toxic workers, but terminating them might ultimately be the best option if they are resistant to change. Notter says a toxic employee shouldn’t be kept on for performance reasons alone—their effect on the rest of the team matters just as much.
“Cultures that tolerate toxic people because they deliver results usually fail,” Notter says. “Those great salespeople that cause 30 percent of your staff to leave every year are not worth the money they’re bringing in.”