Using 360° reviews, pulse surveys & ongoing feedback to identify and address toxic behavior before it spreads in your organization.


Last week I sat down at my desk armed with a hot coffee and a stack of some of my favorite HR Publications. I usually save them up then binge-read them once every few weeks to stay on top of the latest news and trends in Business, Leadership, and Human Resources. I have been doing this for many years and today was the first time that one topic appeared in ALL magazines. The topic was that of toxicity in the workplace.

Each article had its own focus but they all alluded to the growing awareness of people-driven workplace negativity and damaging behaviors and their toxic effects on an organization. We learn from an early age that a bad apple will spoil the bunch, and that negativity and bullying, if left unchecked, will corrode even the best group-setting. We also learn that one bad manager can make an amazing job feel like prison and reduce employees’ trust in the company’s leadership abilities.

Workplace bullying and toxic behavior aren’t new- they have been happening since the dawn of the cubicle- but the way organizations are confronting the issue is. Because organizations can link employee satisfaction and engagement to cold hard dollars, they are simply not tolerating any avoidable forces that can hinder a productive atmosphere. In fact, many organizations are using a combination of pulse surveys, 360° reviews, and ongoing feedback to actively identify any signs of toxicity in order to prevent and treat it.

What makes an employee toxic?

The truth is that it isn’t people that are toxic – it is their actions and behaviors. Toxic behaviors in this context are the direct actions by employees that have a negative impact on others, either immediately or cumulatively over time. These can include bullying, harassment, volatility, slander, and overall negativity. These behaviors adversely affect how other employees (and likely customers) feel and their level of comfort at work.

Although research clearly indicates that workplace ‘bullies’ or anyone who knowingly demeans others is the result of their own weakness and insecurities, that reality doesn’t make experiencing it any less damaging. It is essential to target the people exhibiting these trends in behavior and address them immediately in order to quell the effects and re-enforce the company’s commitment to employee and client satisfaction.

What are the costs of toxic employees?

Not only is valuable time wasted dealing with the aftermath of toxic behaviors, but they also unleash an invisible cloud of poisonous negativity that can suffocate team collaboration, satisfaction and the overall perception of the organization. Loss of productivity, increased sick-days, employee turnover, and divided teams are just some of the costs of letting toxic employees corrode an organization, not to mention the potential legal (eek) implications. Danger also lies in the precedent that it sets for existing and new employees. Toxicity breeds toxicity.

Let’s take a step back and face the reality that some of the toxic employees in your organizations could be managers. Managers aren’t immune to toxic behavior and in fact, are more likely to have their actions go unnoticed due to their rank in the organization. Toxic managers erode teams and their performance, resulting in top talent and future leaders walking right out the door.

Toxic employees can also destroy customer relationships. If you have a customer-facing employee who is negative, disorganized, volatile or inappropriate, they risk losing clients and staining your company’s reputation.

In short, toxic employees are a liability. We have met many company leaders who would terminate even the most high-performing employee if they were toxic because the costs of this lethal behavior outweigh any potential benefits.

Challenges with identifying toxic employees:

Leadership is often in the dark: A big challenge with identifying toxic employees is that these behaviors are not often witnessed by or shared with leadership. Everyone tends to put on their Sunday-best around managers and leaders, leaving toxic actions unrecognized and unaddressed.  Or worse, leaders are the source of the toxicity in which case subordinates are less likely to report.

We all have a bad day: Even the best of us can have an off day where we are a little down or reactive. It is a challenge to discern one-off accounts (which we all have) vs. actual personality types and trends that indicate an employee might be toxic.

Lines aren’t defined: If an organization does not outline behavioral expectations or harassment/bullying policies, then employees might be unaware of the effects of their actions or others might have difficulty identifying occurrences as real issues. Similarly, if an employee’s culture isn’t centered on respect and positivity (and the leadership team does not perpetuate those ideals), employees are less likely to mimic those values.

12 months is a long time: If organizations are relying on traditional once-a-year reviews to target issues, then they are likely going to miss toxic behavior that is happening throughout the year or will have a difficult time identifying toxic trends that go undocumented.

Sifting Out Toxic Employees:

How can an organization turn on the flood lights and reveal employees who might be toxic? The answer is very simple: ASK!

Screen Candidates for Toxic Behavior: Organizations should attempt to prevent contamination altogether by screening applicants for potentially toxic personalities. Even though most candidates will show their good side during the interview process, there are questions that can serve as a relative Geiger counter to help identify levels of toxicity1. Did they complain about their last employer? Do they say ‘I’ a lot? How do they respond to negative questions? Are they open about areas in need of improvement? What did their references say about their interactions with peers? Did they have a positive demeanor?

Pulse Surveys: Pulse surveys are short and sweet questionnaires (2-10 questions max) that are sent out regularly throughout the year to assess the status (i.e. take the pulse) of a particular area of improvement2. Pulse surveys are anonymous and allow an organization to see trends in data over time to get a real-time view of their internal health. Although every organization approaches pulse surveys with a different focus, we believe that a few questions about teams and interactions with other employees is vital to hone in on any potentially toxic behavior. Questions like ‘I feel safe working with other employees’, ‘Interactions with my peers is generally positive’, or ‘I would recommend a friend to work at this company’. Pulse surveys might also reveal larger forces that might be contributing to toxic behaviors. Sometimes management or organizational issues can be the root cause of the sludge.

360° Peer Reviews: If a company’s leadership team is really interested in sifting out toxic workers, then 360° peer reviews are a great way to identify irregularities. Asking peers to provide feedback on their managers and peers by commenting on their skills and general working habits will reveal any caustic trends. Although 360°’s can be plagued by biased views and often do not take place as frequently as they should, they are very reliable in their ability to reveal trends. If an employee’s name continues to creep up in reviews or if an entire team unanimously identifies toxic behavior in certain staff members, then it’s usually a red flag (or at least a place to start). 360°’s might also help prevent toxic behavior. By creating an atmosphere of transparency and accountability, peers are more likely to be aware of their own potentially toxic actions before they surface.

Ongoing Feedback: Toxic employees need not be necessarily cast away. Often times, employees do not realize they are being toxic. This makes it even more crucial for managers to keep a keen eye out for toxic behavior as it happens and address with the employee immediately. Managers might not see it all but if they keep their ear to the ground they are likely to catch a whiff of any poisonous concoctions brewing. Often times, managers turn a blind eye or write the small incidences off as normal ‘spats’ between workers, but it’s important that managers are trained to recognize the smaller behaviors before they become even bigger issue.

By giving employee consistent feedback (positive & constructive), not only will the feedback be expected, but employees are given the proper changes to correct their actions. Frequent feedback also opens up the lines of communications between manager and employees, allowing managers to diagnose if behavior is an isolated event caused by personal issues perhaps, or a more permanent personality trait that isn’t likely to go away.

Overall, there is no such thing as a perfect place to work. Wherever there is a group of people, different personality types along with increased work pressures will result in strains of toxic incidences no matter which company. The important thing is that organizations realize the immense costs involved with allowing toxic behaviors to seep into teams and work to contain it. By having a well-defined culture of positivity and respect, poling employee satisfaction regularly, asking employees for input on their peers, and training managers to identify and deal with toxic actions on an ongoing basis, any organization can neutralize toxic effects.

If you would like to learn more about how emPerform can help create and automate pulse surveys, 360° reviews and ongoing feedback, we invite you to schedule a demo with a member of the emPerform team.


 1 Office Vibe: Why HR Needs To Invest In Employee Pulse Surveys by Jacob Shriar – December 15, 2014 s

2 BOS Staffing 7 Identifiers Of A Toxic Employee Before You Hire Them Posted June 22 2016

Michael Williams, Joseph Youngblood II. “Workplace Bullying: Rage, Resistance and Reform.” Human Resources Executive Magazine June 2-2016. Page 32. Print.

Iain Hopkins, Anne Grant. “Putting our fires: Workplace conflict resolution.” HRD Human Resources Director. Issue 4.2. Page 36. Print.

Mark McGraw. “The High Cost of Caustic Workers.” Human Resources Executive Magazine May 2016. Page 10. Print.