Toxic fumes and toxic waste illicit emergency responses because everyone realizes that these poisonous substances must be addressed immediately.

Toxic employees? Not so much. Companies tend to have a much more subdued, almost nonchalant response to toxicity in human form, which can best be described as the head-in-the-sand approach.

In fact, according to a survey by Fierce Conversations, companies prefer to pretend nothing is wrong. Although 72% of employees wish their organizations were less tolerant, 44% of companies say their preferred tactic for dealing with toxic workers is simply to ignore them.

Sidestepping the problem doesn’t bode well in the long run. So, what is a toxic employee, why are toxic employees so dangerous, and how should they be handled?

What is a toxic employee?

“Based on our survey results, the most toxic trait an employee can have is a negative attitude, followed by being manipulative, and not being a team player,” explains Stacey Engle, president of Fierce Conversations. But regardless of the specific trait, she says a toxic employee is anyone who causes harm to those they work with, which can be a co-worker or team, and ultimately, the organization as a whole.

Dangers of toxic employees

Toxic individuals — like toxic substances — can wreak havoc in a variety of ways. Engle says these individuals directly impact the satisfaction of other employees. “And unhappy employees lead to greater turnover, especially if they feel their concerns are ignored.”

However, a toxic employee can also shift the entire culture of a team, and she says this can affect work significantly. Often, managers and leaders may shrug their shoulders because they’re not dealing with the individual on a routine basis. But the entire company can still be negatively affected. “If people don’t want to stay late to help on a project to avoid someone, or don’t feel comfortable bringing up ideas they think might be ridiculed, the organization can and will suffer.”

Engle provides an example. “If an employee is overly negative toward the ideas of their co-workers, or complains constantly about working on a specific project, the people they work with are affected.” Some of the co-workers may address the issues directly with that individual, hoping the situation gets better.

“If they decide not to raise the issue directly, or if they don’t feel comfortable, it can fester and create a culture within a team that is unhealthy.” This creates a double-negative for the company because the work will suffer and the other employees might start looking for new roles.

If a leader is apprised of the situation and handles it correctly, the environment will improve. But if that leader fails to do anything, Engle says employees will likely lose faith in them. “There are various scenarios as to how this can play out, but the bottom line is this: if a toxic employee isn’t handled quickly and successfully, things can go from bad to worse.”

As a leader, she is speaking from experience. “A few years ago, one toxic person started to quickly cause issues across an entire sales team.” Although Engle acted quickly, she admits that some damage and doubt still existed, and it took time to rebuild trust.

How most people handle toxic employees

While ignoring toxic employees is the preferred coping mechanism among survey respondents, addressing the behavior came in second place, following by confrontation. Engle believes these results should be concerning to anyone in a leadership role.

“Those with titles of director, president or CEO are less likely to ignore toxic behavior, our survey found, while managers and individual contributors are more likely to sweep issues under the rug.”

She believes that those in higher roles may be more empowered to raise concerns head on because they have the skills and confidence to do so. However, they could also be bolder because toxic employees are less likely to rail against them due to their position in the company.

Unfortunately, 72% of the survey respondents believe that even after being addressed, either a toxic employee never changes, or changes infrequently. “There is no doubt this comes into play when deciding to confront them in the first place,” Engle says.

How toxic employees should be handled

Employees may realize the dangers of toxic employees, and think their organizations are too negligent, but they don’t really know how these individuals should be handled. Only 31% firmly believe toxic workers should be fired, while 61% are unsure if they should be fired or not.

Perhaps employees are on the fence because they know that toxic behavior tends to have root causes. Engle firmly believes that these toxic workers should be addressed early and often. “If they are, and continue to be an issue, action must be taken.” However, her organization has identified three key causes of toxic behavior:

Feeling undervalued. “Employees who feel disposable, commoditized, or who don’t understand their role within an organization often hold on to negative energy,” she says. Spending eight hours a day in a place where they feel undervalued can certainly explain (but not excuse) why they would show up in a foul mood.

Lack of recognition. “Asking for the best of someone and giving them nothing in return, except perhaps a paycheck, can be demeaning.” Over time, as an employee continues to feel they’re not be recognized sufficiently, they can become bitter.

Interpersonal conflict. “The survey found that over half of employees argue with their co-workers at least once a month,” Engle says. If these inevitable conflicts are not resolved, employees can feel helpless.

“If leaders can start addressing some of these root causes where they can, chances are the overall instances of toxic employees will decline,” she concludes.