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Dealing with Toxic Employees

They're all around us.

They're hiding inside classrooms. They're roaming throughout hallways. They're lurking within offices.

Who are these terrifying creatures?

They're toxic co-workers. And they've infested our schools.


We all work with at least one person who sucks the positive energy out of us.

Whether we call these people energy vampires, poisonous peers, or cancerous colleagues, the briefest interactions with these humans leave us mentally drained.

It is estimated that 5 percent of staff are "toxic." While not a large number, these employees create 90 percent of anxiety experienced in the workplace.

Repetitive dealings with toxic colleagues can lead to burnout. When employees reach this point of extreme fatigue, they lose workplace motivation and become easily aggravated with others.

Worse yet, being around negative people for too long can lead to serious health conditions. Increases in depression, anxiety, digestive issues, immune system disorders, obesity, and heart disease are common for people who are regularly exposed to toxic individuals.


If toxic employees are so awful for the work environment, why do they persist in our schools?

Put simply, leaders aren't doing their job.

Whereas many school leaders feel comfortable addressing employees with objective performance data (such as poor test scores and attendance issues), they struggle addressing employees with subjective behavior data (such as workplace perception and employee attitude).

Leaders must overcome their insecurities and realize behavioral accountability is more important than results-based accountability. Why? Because behavioral problems almost always cause poor results.

Think about your current co-workers. Are your pessimistic colleagues producing substandard outcomes? While there are always outliers, in most cases personal conduct drives professional results.

Unfortunately, some leaders believe the best way to address toxic staff is by asking teammates to address a coworker. "Your team just needs to stand up to them," is a common phrase mentioned by school leaders.

While on the surface this sounds like a reasonable plan, rarely does this approach work.

What employee wants to challenge a prickly coworker, realizing they have to continue working with this person in the future? Why would a team member want to confront a colleague when the leader isn’t willing to?

Leaders - not peers - must have the courage to address negative employees.


So what does a coaching conversation with a toxic employee look like? Here are five steps to consider:

Evidence: Too many bosses go into meetings with toxic employees with little to no specific evidence outlining the problematic behaviors. Remember, toxic employees thrive on confrontation and are skilled at defending themselves in the face of criticism. Prepared bosses have several data points ready to defend their position when the bullets start flying.

Delivery: Telling someone their attitude needs an adjustment is no fun. The more we anticipate the employee's angry reaction, the more we want to avoid the conversation. If the thought of sharing hurtful (yet vital) information gives you the shakes, consider the following: The intense discomfort in difficult conversations lasts an average of only eight seconds.

Expectations: Once the message has been delivered and tempers have started to cool, the leader must develop clear expectations for the employee's interactions with others. Even if the toxic employee is in denial (which very well could happen), the boss must be very specific about the behavior concerns the employee needs to resolve moving forward.

Document: Delivering the message verbally to the employee is not enough. Leaders must document difficult conversations for the purpose of evidence when similar issues arise in the future. Unfortunately, too many educational leaders lack the discipline to document these conversations (more can be found in this previous blog entry).

Removal: If coaching and intervention do not result in transforming the employee's negativity, the boss may need to consider removing the employee. While not the easiest task to complete in the complex and bureaucratic world of education, savvy leaders realize eliminating a toxic employee is time well spent.


A lot of bosses boast, "I have no problem addressing toxic employees!" yet workplace climate proves otherwise.

Let's create an environment where employee energy is spent on work as opposed to toxic co-workers.



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