Is That Pain in the Butt Employee Toxic or Just Plain Difficult?

Here’s how to tell and how to manage any employee who tries the patience of managers and colleagues.

Written by Theresa Dear
Published on Oct. 02, 2023
 Is That Pain in the Butt Employee Toxic or Just Plain Difficult?
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Brand Studio Logo

A 2015 Harvard Business School study on toxic workers revealed one in 20 workers is ultimately terminated as a toxic employee. It also found that hiring one highly productive toxic worker does more damage to a company’s bottom line than employing several less productive, but more cooperative, workers. This study provided critical data and patterns of which current trends are anchored.

5 Differences Between Difficult and Toxic Employees

  1. Difficult employees sometimes have issues and concerns, while toxic employees always have issues and concerns.
  2. Toxic employees cannot be reasoned with. Difficult employees can. 
  3. Difficult employees apologize for bad behavior. Toxic employees do not. 
  4. Difficult employees express gratitude. Toxic employees do not.
  5. Toxic employees continuously sow seeds of discontent, while difficult employees do not. 

Overt and pervasive toxic behavior can permeate and negatively affect an office and a workforce. Here’s what to know about toxic employees, difficult employees and how to handle this challenging behavior.

Read More About Difficult Employees 7 Signs Your New Hire Is Full of It


What Is a Toxic Employee?

Toxic employees make themself known and are easy to recognize. In most instances, they can be spotted because of a pattern of consistent and assertive disruptions. 

A toxic employee will ask inappropriate questions that might be out of context or publicly call out a mistake, delay, miscommunication or even something as small as a typo. They look for the negative in the organization and exploit it to spotlight errors and fragility with little regard for hurt feelings. 

Toxic employees rarely leave space for the possibility that there is another perspective and explanation for decisions and actions. 

Toxic employees are also incessantly dissatisfied and continually push the envelope or their agenda. Often, they attempt to engage others in cultivating a culture of blame, discontent and division among employees, teams, departments and management. They will regularly talk to co-workers about their unhappiness rather than talking to a supervisor and show little regard for their impact on team morale or how their disruptive behavior distracts from serving customers and clients well and for policies and hierarchy. They don’t fully appreciate the costs associated with client neglect, customer dissatisfaction and revenue loss. 

Rarely focused on the mission, values and goals of an organization, toxic employees focus on showcasing what is wrong and amplifying their voice on one issue after another. Often, they threaten to resign, file a complaint or blast concerns on social media and are unapologetically insistent on being heard and being right. Toxic employees rarely leave space for the possibility that there is another perspective and explanation for decisions and actions. 


What Is a Difficult Employee? 

With difficult employees, it is easier to discern what is at the core of their concern because they will open up and share. They can be impatient and challenging, but they are reasonable. 

Difficult employees may have concerns or challenges that are episodic and issue or policy or employee-based, where a toxic employee will predictively have concerns that are issue and policy and employee based. The response to and management of a difficult employee’s concerns are generally miniscule compared with that of a toxic employee.  

Difficult employees will apologize and express gratitude for support or resolution, unlike toxic employees, who rarely convey gratitude.     

More on Workplace BehaviorWhat Is Quiet Quitting?


How to Deal with Toxic and/or Difficult Employees

Both toxic and difficult employees disrupt the office. Office disruptions can be costly to organizations in diminished productivity, morale, quality and retention.

Toxic employees’ incessant disruptions and unwillingness to cooperate must be met with straight forward feedback and firmness. Leaders and HR professionals must take swift action to reduce risk and preserve a safe work environment. Additionally, leaders should be trained on and use de-escalation methods to respond to toxic employees. If not, a toxic employee can sow seeds to cultivate a toxic culture.    

Comparatively, a difficult employee can show up as a wave in a tsunami whereas a toxic employee can show up as a tsunami. In other words, difficult employees can be managed through coaching, explaining the “why” and engaging the employee in problem-solving and solutions.   

4 Steps to Address Toxic and Disruptive Behavior

  1. Call it out, define and describe it in policies. Make sure there is no ambiguity in the behavioral description.
  2. Convey in clear language that the behavior is unacceptable and not aligned with company culture or values.
  3. Communicate consequences. 
  4. Articulate the progressive discipline process, which includes warnings up to and including termination.

Leaders have a responsibility to make sure the company mission is fulfilled, values are honored, customers are happy and the company is profitable. Human resource professionals should update company policies, especially the handbook, to clearly communicate how to address dynamic and disruptive behavior in the workplace and hold these employees accountable for their behavior.  

Leaders, in partnership with human resources, must present warnings and execute terminations as close to the disruptive episode as possible. Accountability and consequences messages should be underscored and reinforced in onboarding and orientation messaging, training, performance evaluations, coaching, leadership and staff meetings.

Organizations should implement training to equip all managers with constructive ways to respond to toxic employees. A few approaches to addressing toxic employees include: 

  • Address the behavior head on and immediately, with direct feedback. Do not kick the can down the road because other employees are watching to assess if they, too, can be disruptive without consequences. 
  • Document all conversations related to toxic and disruptive behavior to insulate the company from liability and bolster your defense if the employee files a grievance. 
  • Seek to understand the underlying drivers of the behavior and recommend the Employee Assistance Program, coaching or mentoring for a short but specified time.  
  • Terminate an employee for toxic and disruptive behavior when the employee is unwilling to change, and their conduct interferes with the company’s ability to manage their business. Some HR professionals may find that such behavior falls under the hostile work environment policy. 
  • Conduct intentional and thorough interviews to screen out toxic candidates.  Healthy accountable leadership is the guard against toxic behavior. 

As a leader, your job is not to enable or negotiate with a toxic employee as that will only embolden them. Rather, assess the source of the disruptive behavior, including internal and external factors (happening outside of the workplace) and provide support as needed. 

Hiring Now
Gaming • Information Technology • Mobile • Software • eSports