Toxic behaviors occur because individuals believe their conduct is acceptable and their leaders allow it to persist. Within the profession ‘assertive’ behavior is often rewarded or admired. In some cases, leaders unwittingly support or reward negative behavior. Over time, a few individuals’ toxic behavior infiltrates and destroys the work environment for the entire unit or department.
The first step for a leader seeking to provide a positive work environment is to confirm the existence of unacceptable behavior. One approach may be to inspect the number and types of citizen complaints. The reason for this is employees who are treated poorly by their supervisors are more likely to act in a similar manner with the public which leads to an increase in citizen complaints.
There are other indicators that toxic individuals are adversely affecting the workplace. Complaints about an individual or group from a specific shift or unit. Persons are visibly hesitant to openly discuss issues in a meeting. Increased sick leave, requests for transfers, or resignations from a shift/unit. Substantiated or repeated grievances of mistreatment. Lawsuits by employees against a supervisor and the department.
Once it has been determined a problem may exist, steps must be taken to identify the types and severity of toxic behavior being exhibited. This requires good communications throughout the entire department. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of toxic behavior is the destruction of trust and open communications.
To ensure the leader’s message is being received by all employees it must be sent in a variety of ways such as staff meetings, small group discussions, one-on-one meetings, newsletters, and chief executive blog postings. The key is to send the message frequently, consistently, and in a variety of formats. Similarly, to accurately assess the severity of problem behaviors, different techniques should be employed including exit interviews, 360-degree evaluations, focus groups, and organizational leadership surveys.
In some cases, leaders may find it more effective to use an independent, outside source to facilitate these processes. Using the information gathered on the types and severity of toxic behavior as well as the offenders, a comprehensive, multi-dimensional plan should be created that includes formal policy directives, training, role modeling, and processes to hold individuals accountable.
The chief executive must make a formal declaration prohibiting inappropriate behavior and establishing the standards of conduct regarding interpersonal relations. The chief must model these standards for the entire organization.
As new employees are being on-boarded, each should be explained the standards of conduct for interaction with co-workers and how to respond if treated inappropriately by a co-worker or a person in authority, i.e., training officer, supervisor.
Field training officers must model the desired behavior for an officer and work to inoculate recruits against negative personalities. To accomplish this, only the best officers in the department should be assigned to these positions. When a recruit witnesses negative behavior, the FTO should be able to openly discuss the conduct and how it will interfere with the individual’s personal and professional development.
Toxic behaviors or cultures are not created overnight and take time to correct. Too often supervisors ignore a problem in hopes the individual ‘will work it out’. This approach almost always results in the behavior becoming worse. Delaying initiation of corrective action is not acceptable. Promptly addressing negative behaviors is critical for minimizing the potential negative impact and preventing the behavior from becoming a habit. Because of this, supervisors must be held accountable for immediately addressing negative behaviors as soon as it is observed.
Prior to being assigned to a position with responsibility for other employees, new supervisors should complete training that prepares them for the new position. This training should include facilitated class discussions and practical exercises to build the individual’s skills in interpersonal communications and addressing poor performance. Once assigned, routine follow-up meetings should be held with the individual to ensure a smooth transition is completed.
As supervisors prepare to address bad behavior with an individual, they must recognize the individual may have been performing in the same way for a long time and assumes their behavior is acceptable. In many cases, they may be acting in the same manner they observed other employees behave. Because of this, the individual will likely be hesitant to admit their behavior is a problem and may become defensive or argumentative.
When interacting with the toxic employee, the leader must candidly and respectfully explain the behavior is unacceptable and that it will stop. Specific examples of the negative behavior as well as consequences for employees and the organization should be provided. Working together, a formal, written corrective active plan should be created in which the negative behavior is described.
The individual must acknowledge responsibility for performing in an unacceptable manner and for changing their behavior. Detailed descriptions of the steps to be taken to correct the behavior should be created. This plan should also include standards of accountability and a schedule for attaining significant milestones that are agreed upon by all parties.
Once the corrective plan is in place, there must be frequent meetings to discuss progress and ensure necessary adjustments are made. If the individual fails to satisfactorily change their behavior, adverse action must be administered including reprimands, suspension, demotion and eventually termination.
Finally, it should be noted that leaders attempting to hold an individual accountable are often faced with pitfalls to derail their efforts. Behind the scenes, the toxic individual may attempt to spread dissention within the ranks with misinformation and rumors to adversely affect the department operations or coworkers’ morale.
In other instances, attempts may be made to distract the intervening leader’s attention by instigating problems that require them to spend time ‘putting out fires’. In some agencies, the individual may initiate pressure from the community or union representatives to minimize the efforts to change their behavior.
In communities where elected officials are prone to become involved in personnel matters these officials may attempt to place political pressure on the leader. When this pushback occurs, the supervisor must be resolute in their stand to change the negative behavior. It is imperative for the intervening leader to keep their supervisors informed of the problems being encountered and the corrective actions being taken.
In the end, every employee deserves to be treated fairly and respectfully. Individuals with toxic personalities are destroying the life’s work for persons serving in one of the world’s most noble professions. These persons can exist anywhere in the department, as co-workers, subordinates, or supervisors. Organizational leaders have a responsibility to identify, confront, and stop this negative behavior. When the individual fails to take responsibility for changing their behavior, they must be removed from the organization.
Major Dwayne Orrick commands the Support Services Division/Training Unit with the Gwinnett County Georgia Sheriff’s Office. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.