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5 proven ways to keep “toxic employees” off your payroll

Got toxins in the office? Toxins are people who cause dissent. They undermine people. They create an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion. They kill the camaraderie.

They are toxic because they cause enough misery to force worthwhile staffers to leave.

Medical firms can find themselves with toxic people at both the physician and staff levels.

So here are ideas on how not to hire toxins in the first place and what to do with the one already working down the hall.

1 Identify toxic employees

-They are obnoxious time-wasters.

-They are the people who run to the physicians or to the manager with complaints and demands.

-They are preoccupied with everything that isn’t essential to the business. They are consumed by things like gossip.

-They are opinionated and biased.

-They don’t take responsibility for anything but instead blame other people for what goes wrong and are very vocal about it.

-They aren’t motivated by anything that has to do with the office. Instead, they put their energy onto nonbusiness. They are the first to come to the office baby shower but the last to show up for the staff meeting.

-They think they are irreplaceable. And counting on that, they set rules for what they will and won’t do.

-They have a negative attitude. They are always having a bad day. They are inconsolable. They never give off a good vibe.

-The most obvious indication of toxicity, however, is poor productivity and toxins have it because they waste their time talking and paying attention to their own interests while everybody else is working. When anybody has less to do than the other people in the office, count on it that there’s a toxin involved.

Some toxins are passive, or simply unintentional pains in the neck. Those can be tolerated—sometimes.

But the active toxins need to be gotten rid of. Those are the ones who have an actual agenda of getting into everybody’s business far enough to undermine the office and its leadership.

An example is an associate who tries to find out all about the politics within a partnership and form sympathetic relationships with the unhappy physicians.

The higher up the toxin is, the farther the disaster spreads. A toxic physician affects a lot more people than a toxic clerk can.

2 Head them off at the hire

The best defense against such dreadful people is not to hire them in the first place.

Here are several tactics that can cull those people at an interview:

Mostly, the tactics make it possible to get the person to talk enough to reveal whether there’s a negative attitude, too much interest in the nonbusiness or a selfish outlook on employment.

A little extra time on the uptake. The easiest way to get complete information about people is to hold a long interview.

A 20-minute interview is a 20-minute performance. Anybody can keep the charm going for that long.

But at 45 minutes, true traits start to come out. Two 45-minute interviews will produce more valid information about a person than six shorter ones.

A telephone screen. To get to the heart of the interview faster, screen for job factors ahead of time.

Call and say, “There are a few factual questions I’d like to ask you.” Then ask about the experience, training, and so on, and save the in-person interview for more personal, and more telling conversation.

Put the person at ease. Start the interview with a rapport-building remark such as, “How was your trip over here?” or “Nice to meet someone from my home state.”

Everyone is on best behavior at an interview, but get that person comfortable and the behavior relaxes to its true level.

Elicit long answers. Ask questions that force the applicant to talk, for example, “What if you were assigned to someone you didn’t want to work with? How would you get out of that?” or “How would you go about getting a good raise?”

Instead of talking about the functions of the previous jobs, ask questions that force the person to give opinions about those jobs, such as, “What did you learn from that job? What would you have done differently? What jobs have you had that were difficult? If you had your ideal day at work, what would that be?”

To keep the answers going, after each one say, “Tell me more about that.”

Ask for questions. Ask if the individual has questions, and look out for anything that forces the person to give opinions about those jobs, such as, “How do you get ahead here?” or “Who are the important people to work for?”

Conversely, give high points for honest questions about how to succeed such as, “What kind of support do you give to new people to help them with trouble spots?”

3 Bring out the peer snoop

But perhaps the most revealing interview tactic of all is to have a peer take the applicant to lunch.

Choose someone who is easy to talk with, and tell that person to chat about the applicant’s background as part of the natural flow of conversation—“Where have you worked before? What kind of role did you have? What kind of pressures did you have? What did you like about that? Hate about it?”

Afterwards, ask the peer if the applicant made negative comments about previous employers or the people who worked there. Particularly damning is a remark such as, “Why do you think I’m leaving? I hate my boss!”

Ask too if there were disparaging remarks about the people the applicant has talked with in the firm, as in, “Who was that geeky physician I met?”

Don’t think comments like that don’t get made. People let their guard down with peers, and in a relaxed setting where an applicant feels nobody is paying close attention to what’s said, the truth starts to flow.

What’s more, a peer interview can reveal a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. It’s not uncommon for a toxin to make a superb showing with the senior people but snub the juniors.

4 Offer a six-month job

What if the firm isn’t quite sure about an applicant but wants to give that person a try?

You can throw out a safety net. Offer only three or six months’ employment.

That’s different from a probationary period in that the firm says up front the job may only last for that period of time. Phrase the hire as, “We think you have the skills we need, but with budget reviews coming up, we are not sure we can continue this job past six months.”

If the applicant turns out to be toxic, the firm can end its problems with no confrontation at all.

5 Detoxing the irritant on board

What about that toxic person who is already working down the hall?

Unfortunately, the only solution is to confront the problem. But you should start off softly to eliminate the possibility that the bad attitude is being caused by some issue that actually warrants attention.

Take time to ask how things are going and if the staffer is happy with the job. But if nothing turns up, cut to the chase.

Point out specific examples of behavior that isn’t acceptable, for example, “I’ve had five people ask me why you have been so rude to them and to the patients who call. What’s going on?”

Then put it under a magnifying glass. Tell what’s happening as a result of the behavior, perhaps that people see that person as angry and are reluctant to communicate and that the work is getting stymied as a result.

Explain what has to be done. “This is the behavior that we have to see: You have to adjust your attitude. How do you think you can do that?”

Nail it down. “We need to see substantial progress, and I will verify that it is being made. I will be talking with the people you work with to find out if your attitude improves.”

Finally set a time a few weeks hence to meet again and review the progress. “Here is what we have talked about. These are the expectations. We believe these expectations can be met. Let’s meet in two weeks to talk about how you’re doing.”

That’s a warning. If there’s no improvement, it becomes a matter of discipline.

There will probably be a slide back to old behavior.

Keep in mind, however, that toxic people are a nightmare to manage. Rarely do they change.

Even if they do change, often the improvement is only short-lived and the person goes right back to the obnoxious ways.

Keep tabs on the progress, but recognize there’s simply not time to handhold that person through a lot of meetings. If improvement isn’t satisfactory, forget it; fire and move on to the business of running the office.

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