Tips Victims Can Use To Stop Toxic Team Members in Their Tracks
Real Problems. Real Solutions.
Three days before the publishing of this article, a director at a mid-sized technology firm used the methods outlined below to report her boss’ toxic behavior. Less than 24 hours later, she received this response from HR:
We take your allegations seriously. We will be hiring an outside investigator to handle this issue. In the meantime, please keep your mental and physical health as your main priority by staying home with full pay. Your boss has been informed to cease all communication with you. If she reaches out in any way, please let us know and we will address this immediately.
As you continue to read, know this: the items to follow are not mere theories about what might be effective. These are strategies I have used — and have coached others to use — to address toxic behavior in real, high stakes work situations.
Tips to Tackle Toxic Workplace Behavior
- Enlist an Influencer. Find someone who has a relationship with the toxic person. Ask them to leverage this relationship to influence the toxic person’s behavior. Ideally, you want someone whose rank is equal to or higher than your perpetrator’s. Ask this “influencer” to point out the following to the perpetrator:
- The perpetrator’s toxic words or actions
- How these behaviors violate core values
- Ways the behavior may be impacting you, others and business outcomes
- How the behavior damages the perpetrator’s own reputation
Enlisting an influencer is especially useful if the toxicity is coming from your boss, other senior leaders and/or members of the HR team.
2. Use the SWANI Method to report the behavior: Take specific notes about the toxicity you are experiencing using my SWANI method: Situation, Words, Actions/Behaviors, Numbers, Impact. SWANI, used by our mid-level manager above, details the toxic behavior in a way that convinces the organization to respond.
- Situation — Describe when and where the toxicity occurred.
- Words — Write down the specific toxic words the perpetrator used.
- Actions/Behaviors — Detail the things the perpetrator did.
- Numbers — Quantify how many times this has happened, how many people witnessed it, and how many others have been subjected to it.
- Impact — Describe the impact on your physical and emotional health as well as the impact on the business.
Even if you decide that now is not the best time to make a formal report, writing out your situation using SWANI has other benefits. SWANI helps you see past the gas-lighting that can cause you, the victim, to doubt the reality or severity of your situation.
3. Gang Up. Not against the toxic person, but for the good of the organization. Find others who know of, have witnessed or have also experienced this toxic behavior. Make a pact with your gang to report this toxicity. Then, in the span of one work week, each member of the gang should make an individual report to HR about their specific experience. These separate reports by each gang member accomplishes several important things:
- Highlights that the toxicity is a pattern of behavior
- Shows that it is not one employee’s interpersonal conflict with another
- Shows that it is not merely a difference in communication styles between two team members
4. Avoid unstructured interactions. Often toxic behavior occurs in those unchoreographed times, such as the 10 minutes of small talk before a meeting or those casual exchanges in the breakroom. Protect yourself from toxicity by avoiding these danger zones. Arrive or log into meetings promptly at the time necessary and exit immediately after. If your team has returned to the office, then avoid the breakroom at all costs. And yes, I’d suggest skipping social gatherings. Alcohol and a-holes are never a good mix. All things being equal, a free mojito or two is not worth the scars a beer guzzling bully can inflict.
5. Read about the revolution. Do you know these names from recent headlines about toxicity? Peter Dunn? Trevor Edwards? Anthony Levandowski? In order, this is the President of CBS Television, the President of Brand at Nike, and the founder of Google’s self-driving program, Waymo. All three — and many other “powerful” and seemingly untouchable leaders — have been fired or forced out after allegations of workplace toxicity. Today, organizations are taking swift action to protect employees — as well as corporate partnerships and the reputation of their brand — from the damage toxic team members can cause.
Reading about these acts of swift justice can give you hope. Know that if the president of a billion-dollar mega brand receives consequences for being toxic, then your leader or colleague is not as untouchable as they might think.
This is for Victims Who Have No Voice
More precisely, this article is for those victims who have lost their voice in the battle against toxicity. As victims, the strength we would normally use to address workplace toxicity is worn away by the very toxicity we want to stop.
I know this personally, because I was a victim of workplace bullying. Though these strategies are second nature to me now, when I was being bullied, I could not see a way to put an end to this damaging behavior.
If you are reading this as a victim or bystander, be heartened by the fact that others have used these tips and seen dramatic positive changes similar to the story above.
Click here to download my free, 60-minute webinar. This webinar defines three common types of workplace toxicity and ways to address each.