Are You Your Most Toxic Employee?

Put yourself under the microscope and see if you have any bad habits that are holding back the company.
Are You Your Most Toxic Employee?
Anja Smith

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In a nutshell, a toxic employee is a person who is not just difficult to manage or get along with but whose negativity spreads throughout an organization.

I’m a fan of hard truths. I’m one of those obnoxious people who loves living outside of their comfort zone and thinks everyone else should too. So, instead of assuming that the toxic employee is someone on your staff you need to deal with, I’m going to ask you to put yourself under a microscope.

A lot of times in plumbing we get thrust into a role of leadership. It isn’t something we are necessarily taught to do or given the tools for. It is often just suddenly asked of us — whether because of a promotion or because you decided to start a company and now have employees answering to you. Either way, we may or may not actually have leadership and management skills at the ready. That can be difficult. The pressure can weigh on us. We might not feel as in control as we’d like.

For an additional challenge, it is often difficult for us to see how our own behavior affects others. In short, we make excuses. Especially when we are the boss. We can shroud a lot of bad behavior under the mantle of “managing for the good of the company.”

But that is why it is even more important to take a critical look at our own behavior and analyze it, just like we would of any employee. Here are a few important questions to ask yourself to ensure that you aren’t the one engaging in toxic behavior in the workplace:

Do you hold yourself accountable to the same rules?

It is easy to let yourself off the hook when you’re the boss. After all, there is no one looking behind you to make sure it gets done and you are already under a lot of pressure, right? Wrong. Trust me, your employees notice.

Either it’s a rule or it isn’t. Your behavior more than your words determines that. Saying there is a rule and then not following it yourself is effectively communicating that the rule is actually a suggestion. By definition, it’s no longer a rule.

Now you have no leg to stand on for holding these employees accountable. In fact, holding them accountable for a rule that you don’t follow is a surefire way to undermine your authority. It will also likely hold your company back and cause you to come across as an inconsiderate bully. After all, there is a reason you put that rule in place to begin with.

Bottom line: Don’t ever ask something of your employees that you wouldn’t do yourself.

Do you complain about your employees with other employees?

We are talking about gossip. It’s incredibly inappropriate to gossip if you are the boss. It doesn’t matter who started it. If an employee has a complaint about another employee, your only response should be, “Thank you letting me know, I will address it with him/her.” They should feel heard and validated, but it is not an opportunity for you to unload your frustrations with them.

As the boss, you have to be the clear champion of appropriate behavior and language in the workplace. That includes everything from supply house gossip to customer interaction.

Bottom line: Learn how to hold your tongue and find a different outlet.

Do you complain about your workload to employees?

Working harder than your employees doesn’t make you a saint or a martyr. It doesn’t give you the right to guilt them about their own dedication or work habits. Being the boss is hard. In fact, it should be harder than an entry-level position or even mid-level management. The rewards are different so the responsibilities are different.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, learn how to delegate or learn how to say no. Those are your options. Complaining about your workload will only make your employees feel incredibly undervalued and undermine their confidence.

Bottom line: Find a different way to manage your stress, because this is inappropriate.

Are you present and valuable in your company?

Sure, your job is more than running calls or working on a job site. You are running a company and sometimes that work doesn’t translate to field operations. This distance can create the illusion that you are not in touch with your employees and their day-to-day workload. They may or may not understand your role in the company and how it is beneficial.  

You may be doing legitimate work or you may be bass fishing. Either one is a valid way to spend your time, if that is the correct role for you. But make sure your employees have the structure and leadership in place that they need. If you aren’t going to be that person, step away and hire someone for that role. Employees should feel as if the company has a dedicated leader. If you’re spending the day networking or watching TV when they are earning overtime from a heavier than normal workload, it will lead to resentment. Either help them or get them help.

Bottom line: Show your employees that you are accountable on every level for the success of the company.

Are you an organizational mess?

Disorganization, struggles adapting, and resisting change are all signs that you are, indeed, a hot mess. The problem with this is lack of credibility, something every effective leader needs.  

Find the tools you need to support your weaknesses in this area and challenge yourself to overcome them. Chances are if you are struggling with it, your team is too. Your attitude and dedication to making it work, despite your weaknesses, will be what encourages employees. They certainly aren’t going to feel motivated to put in the extra effort if you aren’t.

Bottom line: Check in frequently with yourself or an accountability partner to get over the hump.


Holding a mirror up to our own inadequacies can be a painful experience. Luckily, no one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect you to try. As a leader, part of your job description is constant self-improvement. You should be leading the charge for a positive impact on your employees and organization.

If you find that you are struggling in one or more of these areas, as I am, it is worth spending some time reflecting on that discomfort. You may feel shame, regret, or like you failed your employees. Don’t dwell on these emotions, but let yourself recognize them as an opportunity to improve. Then take action. Do something, anything, to try and correct just one behavior. Find someone either in your company (preferably at the same level) or in your personal life who can help you be accountable. If you don’t have that person, try looking for a leadership group or mastermind in your area.

A toxic employee is not worthless or irredeemable. Don’t give up on this person — yourself or others — just because they present a challenge. Invest in yourself and your employees to create a better environment and you’ll create an incredibly powerful organization.

About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at


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