How to Identify and Deal with High-Performing Toxic Employees?

By hrlineup | 10.01.2024

In every workplace, the quest for high performance is a constant pursuit. Organizations strive to cultivate a culture of excellence, where employees are motivated, efficient, and contribute positively to the overall success of the company. However, not all high-performing individuals bring positive energy to the workplace. Some high performers can exhibit toxic behaviors that can have detrimental effects on the team and the organization as a whole. Identifying and managing these high-performing toxic employees is crucial for maintaining a healthy work environment.

Identifying High-Performing Toxic Employees

Identifying high-performing toxic employees is a challenging task for organizations, as their negative impact may be masked by their apparent success in meeting performance metrics. While high performance is typically valued in the workplace, it is crucial for leaders and HR professionals to recognize signs of toxicity that can undermine team dynamics, employee morale, and overall organizational health. Here are key factors to consider when identifying high-performing toxic employees:

1. Isolation and Undermining:

Toxic employees may isolate themselves from the team or create factions within the group. They may undermine their colleagues’ efforts, spreading negativity and diminishing others’ achievements.

2. Lack of Collaboration:

High-performing toxic employees often prefer to work independently and resist collaboration. They may hoard information, hindering the flow of communication and teamwork within the organization.

3. Micromanagement and Control:

Toxic individuals may exhibit tendencies to micromanage and control others, creating a tense working environment. They may be resistant to delegating tasks and insist on maintaining control over various aspects of projects.

4. Inability to Accept Feedback:

While high performers usually seek continuous improvement, toxic employees may resist constructive feedback. They may react defensively or dismissively when confronted with areas for improvement.

5. Inconsistent Values and Ethics:

Toxic employees may prioritize personal success over organizational values and ethical standards. They may engage in behaviors that compromise the company’s reputation or violate ethical guidelines.

6. Negative Impact on Team Morale:

Despite achieving individual success, toxic employees can have a detrimental impact on team morale and overall workplace culture. Their negative attitudes can spread, leading to a decline in collaboration, motivation, and job satisfaction.

7. Bullying and Harassment:

High-performing toxic employees may resort to bullying or harassment to maintain their dominance. Their behavior may manifest in subtle forms, such as passive-aggressive comments or more overt forms like intimidation.

8. High Turnover in Surrounding Team:

Constant turnover within the team or department where a high-performing employee works may be a red flag. Toxicity can contribute to increased stress and dissatisfaction among colleagues, leading to a revolving door of talent.

9. Manipulative Communication:

Toxic individuals may use manipulative communication tactics to achieve their goals. This can involve spreading rumors, gossiping, or employing other forms of communication that sow discord within the organization.

10. Resistance to Change:

High-performing toxic employees may resist organizational changes that could challenge their established status quo. Their reluctance to adapt may impede the company’s ability to innovate and grow.

How to Deal with Toxic Employees?

Dealing with high-performing toxic employees can be a challenging task for any organization. While their exceptional skills and results may contribute positively to the bottom line, their toxic behavior can have detrimental effects on team morale, productivity, and overall workplace culture. Here are some strategies to effectively manage high-performing toxic employees:

  • Identify and Acknowledge the Toxic Behavior:

Start by identifying specific behaviors that are toxic. This may include bullying, undermining colleagues, creating a hostile work environment, or displaying a lack of teamwork. Acknowledge the impact of these behaviors on the team and organizational culture.

  • Document Incidents:

Keep a record of specific instances of toxic behavior. Documenting incidents provides a factual basis for addressing the issue and helps in building a case if formal action becomes necessary.

  • Communicate Expectations Clearly:

Set clear expectations for behavior and performance standards. Clearly communicate the values and culture that the organization upholds. Make sure every employee, including high performers, understands the importance of teamwork, collaboration, and respectful communication.

  • Provide Feedback:

Offer constructive feedback on the specific behaviors that need improvement. Be specific about the impact of their actions on the team and emphasize the importance of fostering a positive work environment.

  • Offer Support and Resources:

Some toxic behaviors may stem from personal issues or lack of awareness. Provide resources such as coaching, mentoring, or counseling to help the employee address underlying issues and develop better interpersonal skills.

  • Establish Consequences:

Clearly outline the consequences of continued toxic behavior. This may involve formal disciplinary actions, performance improvement plans, or, in extreme cases, termination. Ensure that consequences are consistent with organizational policies and employment laws.

  • Involve Human Resources:

If the situation persists, involve human resources to mediate and facilitate a resolution. HR can guide the process, ensure fairness, and provide additional support and resources for both the high-performing toxic employee and the affected team members.

  • Promote a Healthy Team Culture:

Foster a positive team culture that encourages open communication, mutual respect, and collaboration. Celebrate achievements and emphasize the importance of collective success over individual performance.

  • Consider Reassignment:

In some cases, reassigning the high-performing toxic employee to a different team or project may be a viable solution. This can help mitigate the negative impact on the current team while still utilizing the individual’s skills.

  • Monitor and Evaluate Progress:

Regularly assess the high-performing toxic employee’s progress in improving behavior and adherence to organizational values. Provide ongoing feedback and support as needed.

Why Do Companies Keep Toxic Employees?

Companies may keep toxic employees for various reasons, despite the negative impact they may have on the work environment and team dynamics. Here are some factors that contribute to this phenomenon:

  • Skill Set and Expertise:

Sometimes, toxic employees possess unique skills or specialized knowledge that are challenging to replace. Companies may tolerate their toxic behavior because of the perceived value they bring to the organization in terms of technical expertise or industry knowledge.

  • Fear of Confrontation:

Managers and leaders may be hesitant to address toxic behavior due to a fear of confrontation. Confronting employees about their behavior can be uncomfortable and challenging. Some leaders may choose to avoid conflict altogether, hoping the issue will resolve itself or that it won’t escalate further.

  • Short-Term Focus:

Companies with a short-term focus on immediate results or projects might prioritize getting the work done over addressing interpersonal issues. Toxic employees who deliver results in the short term may be retained until their negative impact becomes too significant to ignore.

  • Lack of Awareness:

In some cases, management may be unaware of the extent of an employee’s toxic behavior or its impact on the overall work environment. This lack of awareness can result from a failure in communication channels or a lack of transparency within the organization.

  • Poor Performance Management Systems:

If a company lacks robust performance management systems or has ineffective HR policies, it may struggle to identify and address toxic behavior promptly. Without clear guidelines on behavior expectations, it becomes challenging to hold employees accountable for their actions.

  • Company Culture Tolerates Toxicity:

If a company has a culture that tolerates or even encourages toxic behavior, it’s more likely to retain employees who exhibit such traits. In such environments, toxic behavior may be normalized, making it harder to recognize and address.

  • Investment in Training:

Companies may have invested significant time and resources in training and developing a toxic employee. In such cases, they may be reluctant to let the employee go, hoping that their investment will eventually pay off.

  • Legal Concerns:

Fear of legal repercussions, especially in situations where toxic behavior may be connected to protected characteristics, can lead companies to be cautious about terminating employees. They may worry about potential lawsuits or damage to their reputation.

  • Limited Talent Pool:

In industries facing talent shortages or where specific skill sets are scarce, companies may be more inclined to retain toxic employees simply because finding suitable replacements is challenging.

  • Personal Relationships:

In smaller companies or closely-knit teams, personal relationships or connections between toxic employees and higher-ups may influence decisions to keep them onboard despite their behavior.


Effectively identifying and managing high-performing toxic employees is crucial for maintaining a positive workplace culture and sustaining long-term success. By promoting open communication, setting clear expectations, and providing opportunities for growth, organizations can address toxic behaviors and foster a collaborative and healthy work environment. It is a delicate balance between recognizing and rewarding performance while ensuring that it aligns with the values and culture of the organization.