Chief Executive Insights

What to do with a caustic employee?

Houston Texas United States

As Americans return to work, managers will need to re-examine how they deal with caustic employees .

Let’s face it: the return to physical workplaces is stressful. Business leaders have been rightly focused on making sure employees feel safe and comfortable as they prepare to come back.

But once they do, other, thornier issues that might have been farther down on the priority list during the pandemic must be addressed. Dealing with caustic employees – especially after a long, anxiety-inducing, and often polarizing year – likely needs to be at the top of the list.

Navigating these situations in a moment when leaders need to be extra sensitive about their employees’ wellbeing and their company’s culture won’t be easy. How do you know that someone isn’t just having a bad day, or week, or month? When is it a temper problem that you can coach? How do you find out the true nature of person who may have one face for you, the boss, and another for others (particularly subordinates)? Most difficult of all – and this will be even more difficult now – how can we square disrupting someone’s livelihood with creating a caring, positive workplace?

It also might be tempting to let bad behavior slide at a time of crisis-level worker shortages. But doing so can erode trust in your commitment to values, which must endure during and exist after a crisis. It takes years to build trust and just moments to destroy it – and there’s no guarantee you can build it back. Short-term organizational pain, even at times of crisis, stemming from cutting ties with a bad apple is better that ruining a culture you’ve worked hard to build.

The bottom line is that, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to create and maintain a healthy work environment, and this hinges on removing negative influences if you can’t fix them. But that doesn’t mean you should go about it callously. Here are five tips for identifying a caustic employee before you take action:

  1. Be patient, but set timelines. Don’t jump to a conclusion based on one data point, or even three. Keep your eyes open and take in data, writing it down formally so that you create a paper trail for legal and memory reasons. But set a time limit – one week or one month – and once the time has elapsed, make a decision regarding next steps. Take it from me: Once, after an employee was let go at my company, we received an email from their personal account inadvertently copying their old work email address that said, “I can’t believe it took them a year to let me go. How stupid.”
  2. Don’t exacerbate arguments. Give advice to help repair relationships. Carefully navigating competing claims of impropriety is the most difficult part of managing office conflicts. Take one side and you lose trust of the other – and sharing what was said in confidence is risky. Larger companies can (and should) leave a lot of this work to HR and keep the CEO out of it. But as the head of a small company, I once pulled two arguing parties into a conference room and told them what the other had previously told me. They (unsurprisingly) disagreed, which boxed me into a corner; it became clear that one of them had to leave the organization, either by my hand or their own quitting. I lucked out – one of them clearly lied, making the decision straightforward – but the confrontation was still a strategic mistake on my part. It showed me the better path is to coach each individual from the background.
  3. Don’t accuse. Ask questions. Accusations immediately put employees on the defensive. They’ll often manufacture excuses rife with inaccuracies, and getting a complete picture is difficult even in the best of circumstances. For leaders, it’s more effective to ask open-ended questions: how did such and such happen, tell me about this, help me understand, etc. Avoid using the word “why” and you will likely avoid making accusations. Paradoxically, even though you can’t be as direct, you will still likely end up getting better information with which you can make an informed decision.
  4. Trust your gut – but remember, it’s not about you. At a company I’m familiar with, there were some warning signs – e.g., awkward hushes when senior managers walked by and rumors of unhappiness without any direct feedback. But the company’s leaders didn’t go with their guts and investigate, instead letting the situation devolve for a couple years. Things eventually got so toxic that a dozen employees had to be let go. Leaders in similar situations should trust their instincts, even if it leads to some dismissals. But they also shouldn’t confuse instinct with emotion. Just because you’re annoyed and don’t want to deal with someone, doesn’t mean that you should act.
  5. Don’t worry about cutting ties with other sources of drama. People who revel in drama, even if they’re not the actual cause of the problems, can fuel the fire, spreading discord through gossip or other unhelpful agitations. Getting rid of these dramatic personalities might not solve the problem of the caustic employee, and part of what makes personnel decisions so paralyzing is a fear of letting the wrong person go. But moving on from a source of drama is probably a good idea on its own – and could make it easier to identify the caustic troublemaker.

Letting people go is messy, sad, and terrible. But it can be the cost of being a leader. Don’t repeat the mistakes of thousands before you – be thoughtful yet decisive and create a jerk-free environment that everyone will thank you for.


Written by Dr. Ethan Karp.

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Dr. Ethan Karp
Dr. Ethan Karp is an expert in transforming companies and communities. As President and CEO of MAGNET, he has helped hundreds of manufacturing companies grow through technology, innovation, and talent. Before joining MAGNET, he worked with Fortune 500 companies at McKinsey & Co. Dr. Karp received undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and physics from Miami University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from Harvard University. Dr. Ethan Karp is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.