The "Poison" Employee

I have seen a number times and have discussed with many HR managers the concept of the “poison” employee. What I mean by this is that employee who slowly destroys your organization through their actions or words, much as a spider or snake’s poison starts slowly digesting its prey. You can recognize these employees because they:

  • Use intimidation
  • They foster “bad blood” between coworkers or managers and employees
  • They spread rumor
  • Circumvent the rules or encourage others to do so
  • Find fault with others actions, be they formal rules of the company, or someone else’s work habits
  • Find fault with other people and talk about it
  • Are conspiratory
  • (fill in your favorite here)

The problem is these employees are often “good”, productive employees and thus give you no objective reason to get rid of them. As HR people we are left trying to referee situations or dealing with the aftermath of another employee opting to leave. Managers put up with the situation far too long as do HR people.

When the situation finally gets to the point of being intolerable we terminate them, yet are unsure of the footing we are on and live in dread of the lawsuit that may follow. Businesses without any HR guidance often live with this type of employee for a long time to an unknown cost in business and opportunity.

Michael Wade of had a blog on Predatory Employees in which he describes something similar to what I called the ‘poison’ employee. He describes the fear employers have “Employers fear how suspicious or reprehensible behavior on the part of an employee may be represented to a jury as the expected conduct of a victim. They worry, in turn, about how a manager’s reasonable and appropriate behavior may be portrayed as oppressive or harassing. Their assumption is that juries will have an automatic sympathy for the underdog – the employee – versus the big, rich employer. Fear of litigation is both the sword and shield of the predatory employee.”

However you describe this type of employee they are a very real problem. Wade suggests that this needs to be discussed and “Selection procedures need to be improved so the predators can be screened out. Early intervention in potential cases, with the energetic involvement of the firm’s attorneys, should be the rule and not the exception. Team values need to be set forth and reinforced.” That is a very good call on his part and one I hardily agree with. Unfortunately, many companies do not articulate their culture well enough to be able to screen properly.

What is your take on this? How do you prevent the poison employee, or Wade’s predatory employee, from destroying your organization? Or if you have a way to screen them out what is it?

2 thoughts on “The "Poison" Employee”

  1. In my organization, I’ve seen several employees who I would categorize as “poison” employees. It’s very frustrating to deal with. On the one hand, the manager defends the employee because she is a good employee and gets results. On the other hand, at what cost? I’ve had other employees state that they flat out refuse to work with her and will wait until the next shift starts. I’ve tried to explain to the manager that it costs more to keep this person due to the inefficienies that she causes than what she actually produces. The worst part — this employee actually resigned and then we hired her back 6 months later because we were in a “jam”…

  2. Yes Renee, that can be very frustrating. Just as everyone is finally breathing easy to have the person come back can be very bad for morale. This is one of the reasons a company values statement can be important to have that can help select the right people to begin with and then to train hiring managers in the importance of hiring to those values and later managing to those values.

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