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Dilemma of the Month: Why Are My Bosses Siding With a Toxic Employee?

Back Article Feb 3, 2022 By Suzanne Lucas

I have one very difficult, challenging and toxic direct report. He goes behind my back and attempts to undermine me — and it appears to be working. My manager and director seem to be supporting my toxic employee. After a meeting where my employee took center stage and spoke for two hours, demeaning me and blaming errors on me, I spoke with my director. The director said, “Don’t feel bad that you have been asking for the same things and we turned you down and gave them to him; he’s just better at selling his ideas than you are.” This person will destroy my career if this goes on. He’s already divided my department with half the people looking to him for guidance. How on earth do I fix this with no support?

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My first question: What have you already tried with the toxic employee? Presuming you have disciplinary power over him, have you sat down and made it very clear that his behavior has to change? Have you put him on a performance improvement plan? Have you followed through with consequences?

If the answer to any of this is no, this is where you start. The support he gets from your manager and director may make him think he’s not doing anything wrong. Sometimes a little correction is all you need.

But if that is not the case, then I have a second question: Why do you think your manager and director are supporting the toxic employee?

There must be a reason that they think he’s worth listening to. It may be a good reason, and it may be a bad reason. It may be because this person threatens lawsuits if they do anything, and they are scared. It may be that this person is a slick-tongued bully. Or maybe you’re not doing a great job.

Sorry, but it’s something that you need to consider. First, though, let’s start with the possibility that your employee is toxic and you are not the problem. If this is the case, ask for a one-to-one meeting with your manager and explain that this employee is undermining you and that you need support to be successful.

Come with clear examples. “On January 2, I did X, and the toxic employee did Y. Even though X was the company’s plan and the approved method of doing inventory, you supported Y and called it innovative. As a result, the other employees now turn to the toxic employee rather than listening to me.” 

She may then defend herself by saying that, well, Y was innovative! Point out that if the employee had come to you and suggested Y, you would have agreed to go along with it and given him full credit. As it was, the toxic employee ignored your request, damaged relationships and undermined authority.

Sometimes people just don’t see it. They need you to clearly explain the problem. This may snap your manager out of it, and then you can approach your director together.

And what if you are the problem? How do you know this? First, ask your manager for feedback regarding your performance. Ask for specific information about areas that need work. Ask your other direct reports what you can do to be a better manager.

It’s quite possible that this toxic employee simply pushes all your buttons and exacerbates your management problems. It’s also possible that you are not performing at an acceptable level and your other employees were anxious for someone new to come in and give guidance and direction. They naturally follow this employee because he’s doing what you should do.

If you receive feedback from your manager on how to improve and you do so, it may solve the problem. You can also reach out to HR for support and management training. There are often things available that you just have to ask for!

But if your toxic employee is nefarious and not just obnoxious, and your manager can’t see the problem, then it’s time for you to move on. This is unfair, of course. It would be great if all bosses were good and allowed you to handle toxic employees. But sometimes the situation isn’t changeable. If your boss is actively working against you, then it is time to go.

Fortunately, you don’t have to jump ship immediately. You can take the time to look for a good job and leave when you find one. You should only leave a job without a new one lined up if the situation is affecting your mental or physical health. 

I also suspect that if your senior managers support your one toxic employee, then that’s not the only problem in the company. In that case, moving on may be the best solution.

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