5 Types of “Toxic Employees” in the Workplace and Signs to Look Out For

December 14, 2022 Workhuman Editorial Team
toxic employees

Most people are familiar with the idea of a “toxic” friend or family member – someone who is always negative, critical, or just plain difficult to be around. But what about a “toxic employee”?

Just like “toxic people” in our personal lives, “toxic employees” can cause challenges in the workplace. They can make it difficult for other employees to do their jobs, and they can create a negative and hostile work environment.

At the outset, we feel it’s important to make clear that while “toxic person”/”toxic employee” is the common vernacular, it’s not the most inclusive vernacular. When we use the term, we are referring not to people who are toxic but to people exhibiting toxic behavior. There’s a difference. One implies a problem inherent to the person rather than an issue or behavior that can be corrected.

Because (spoiler) this piece covers how to help change the ways of someone acting in a toxic manner, we feel having this definition and distinction in mind will help you reframe the issue and lead with empathy in dealing with an employee who is harming or disrupting the culture of your workplace. 

After all, if you suspect that you’re working with a “toxic employee,” there are steps you can take to proactively address and improve the situation.

Below, we’ll break down signs to look out for, how to deal with bad behavior, and the common types of “toxic employees” that can bring down morale and affect the productivity of other team members.

What is a “toxic employee”?

“Toxic employees” exhibit actions detrimental to an organization’s personnel, property, or both. These workers may cause customer and profit loss or harm to other staff members. They might even become the reason a co-worker decides to resign.

A “toxic employee” most likely doesn’t get along well with other people. Often times they don’t even realize they’re being toxic in the first place.

Many factors can cause an employee’s toxic behavior. They can be related to past experiences or trauma, the lack of appreciation from colleagues or the organization, or ego.

Therefore, it’s vital to understand the warning signs of an employee making work more difficult before it impacts employee turnover or team productivity.

worker with low employee morale because of toxic employee is prone to burnout

Warning signs to identify “toxic employees”

It’s difficult to identify a “toxic employee” during the interview process; chances are you won’t see the person exhibiting this type of behavior until they’ve joined the team. Once on board, a worker behaving in a toxic manner can do some real damage. Toxic work culture is 10x more likely to drive employees away.

To spot a “toxic employee,” look for any of these red flags:

  • Bullying or harassing colleagues
  • Absenteeism
  • Taking credit for other people’s work
  • Complaining about the organization without taking action
  • Sabotaging other people’s work
  • Blaming others for their mistakes
  • Giving unnecessary tasks to co-workers
  • Competitiveness
  • Insensitivity
  • Overconfidence

If you’re observant enough, you can identify employees exhibiting any of these red flags. Look for those who gossip, humiliate, discourage, demotivate, and manipulate coworkers and clients. This person may act selfishly and try to make others around them feel inferior.

complainer kind of toxic employee undermines whole team's efforts on virtual check-in

Types of toxic employees

A workplace is essentially an assembly of people with different personalities who need to find ways to effectively collaborate. Here are some examples of common personas of toxic behavior:

The Bully

This employee never seems to feel happy if a colleague gains recognition at work. They want to be on top and the center of attention. 

This person’s motto is “If I can’t have it, no one else will.” At work, it manifests as selfish behavior, shifting blame, or entitled unprofessionalism. 

In action, a person exuding this behavior pulls others down or picks apart ideas. They can single-handedly create a psychologically unsafe environment where colleagues don’t feel comfortable voicing ideas or opinions of their own.

Left unchecked, the environment can turn hostile and erode trust in the workplace


manager wondering if a formal performance review will help the situation

The Slacker

A slacker specializes in procrastination. Slackers tend to push off tasks and might also have a habit of coming in late or being absent.

If they keep missing deadlines or delaying customer service, they can impact the work and experience of colleagues waiting on them for deadlines as well as the company at-large. 

The Volcano

The volcano, as the name implies, can lay dormant or it can erupt. And it’s not easy to predict. In the workplace, this comes to life as sudden outbursts or unnecessarily heated debates.  

Insisting on their ideas will either provoke havoc or demotivate their colleagues from participating in projects. Like the bully, their behavior can outwardly harm psychological safety.

The worst scenario is if a volcanic employee imposes their opinions or causes clients to withdraw from doing business with the company.

The Pessimist

The pessimist is the quiet nightmare of the workplace as this employee carries a negative vibe. For some reason, everything seems uninteresting to this person. They might find every task boring or think a colleague’s performance is not good enough.

Anyone can feel demotivated if they keep hearing complaints. So a pessimist hinders the creativity of others around them, even if it’s not intentional. 

The Martyr

Do you know anyone who isn’t fond of taking a day off or joining colleagues to go out for lunch? Martyrs are hard-working and these employees have trouble saying ‘no’ to new assignments and tasks.

Sounds like a dream!

This one can be difficult to spot, especially if these employees are productive. But, first, too much work seriously impacts their health.

And, second, while a go-getter attitude is welcome, biting off more than they can chew can cause overwork, missed deadlines, and hinder other people’s learning chances.

Low employee moral of toxic employee affects rest of the team

How to deal with “toxic employees”

Dealing with a “toxic employee” varies depending on what kinds of behaviors they’re showing in the workplace. But communication is the key to understanding their actions and finding a solution. So, you must talk with your employees privately and give them a chance to explain.

Here are some tips for you:

Step 1: find out what causes the behavior

Talk with employees exhibiting toxic behavior to bring awareness to the situation. Sometimes they don’t realize that they’re causing problems.

Try to find out as much information as possible to understand what’s behind the person’s behavior.

What’s causing their passive-aggressive attitude? Are there issues in their personal life?

Individuals may act up as a coping mechanism. You might be surprised that some of them aren’t even aware of how their actions affect others. Porath’s research on incivility found that 4% of employees participate in this conduct merely for fun.

Ask if the employee has problems outside the workplace that might have affected their focus. Clarify that you don’t tolerate any undesirable behaviors and offer constructive feedback in order to rectify the situation. 

Step 2: provide an honest assessment

Explain to the employee how their toxic behavior might affect the business and other team members’ productivity. Provide them with specific examples to emphasize your point. 

You can share research findings that showed 25% of the employees who experienced rudeness vent their frustrations on the clients.

Moreover, 12% of workers leave their jobs due to incivility. You probably don’t want the same thing to happen in your organization.

Instead of giving feedback, you may involve your employee in feedforward. They can self-evaluate and decide which behaviors they should improve.

Step 3: specify the expectations and consequences

Be particular about what you expect from employees. Deadlines need to be strict, but are the expectations realistic?

If frustration is boiling over because an employee has difficulty finishing tasks on time, try reducing the number of projects they’re on and provide clear guidelines.

Encourage them to be proactive in their communications to help build trust in their relationships with colleagues. 

Step 4: motivate the employees to grow

If you see a path of redemption and growth for the employee acting in a toxic manner, follow it. It’s a chance for the employee to learn how to curb disruptive behavior and for the organization to handle a difficult situation. 

Again, toxic behavior has a far-reaching and negative impact so the positive effects of curbing toxic behavior extend to others in the organization as well. 

Isolating the employees who are under observation is also significant. According to a study at the Rotterdam School of Management, even one toxic worker can decrease a team’s performance by 30-40%.
employee hurt by toxic worker's office gossip

Frequently asked questions

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When employees behave in a disruptive or harmful manner, it’s a difficult situation for numerous parties in an organization. Addressing toxic behavior causing issues starts with understanding the root cause.

By talking to employees and understanding what is frustrating or stressing them will help you develop a tailored solution to the problem. 

Have you encountered an employee acting in a toxic manner? Let us know your story in the comments below.