So there’s a pickle a lot of you will get yourselves into.  That critical team member, that you just have to have, that you need — that’s also toxic.

I remember when it happened to me.  In my first start-up, there were literally only a handful of engineers who understood our technology.  The best we made our CTO.  The second best, “William”?  Well he was toxic.  Literally no one wanted to work with him. No one.  He was cruel, snarky, and had burnt every bridge you could burn.

But I pulled our team together and said look — I know no one wants to work with William.  But what if our CTO gets hit by a bus? We can’t have no one who can make it all work.  We owe it to our investors, our customers, our team members to have some basic redundancy here.  The team’s heads hung low, but they finally agreed.  They never thought they’d have to work with William.  But we needed one more here.  He was off the charts in his skill set.

And William started and the first 6 months his smug and condescending behavior was everywhere, every day — but he got it done.  

He scaled up our technology in a way folks for years had thought was impossible.  Literally, he made the impossible possible.

The work after that, though, while challenging was a bit more routine.  And William became even more condescending and toxic to the team.

It came to a head at a team meeting where I talked about some of our challenges, and he interrupted me.  “It’s not like you’re much of a real CEO anyway.”  It was an intentional dagger in front of everyone.  I actually didn’t take it personally.  He had a point my inexperience as CEO, and if he’d made it behind closed doors, it would have been 100% fine.

But the rest of the team had had it at that point. 

I walked William calmly outside and said I didn’t mind tough feedback, but the constant public criticism of everyone had to end.  “What criticism?” He said with a smug smile.

I told him to go home and think about it.  And that was his last day.

Since then, I’ve seen it happen multiple times again.

I’ve basically learned a few lessons we all learn over time on The Toxic Employee:

  • Yes, sometimes you do need to tolerate 1 absolutely insanely good team member that is toxic — for a while.   But once in a while, there is someone so specialized, such a great role player, than you have to tolerate a Dennis Rodman for a while.  For a while.
  • 2 is too many, it feeds on itself.  You can’t have 2 toxic employees.  1 toxic but hyper talented team member drives everyone nuts, but doesn’t change the culture.  But 2 do.  They feed on each other, hire other toxic people, and turn the company against the mission and each other.
  • Once in a while, the toxic but critical employee does mature out of it in time.  I’ve only seen this happen once, but it does happen.  By definition, these folks are hyper-smart.  Rarely do they have the drive or skills to grow out of it.  But once in a while, being in an environment where they can thrive, they at least partially grow out of it.  But don’t count on it.
  • Generally, it’s a short-term accommodation.  With the one exception, I’ve never seen this unstable situation make it a year successfully.  So assume if you are using a toxic hire as a bridge, that you need to immediately work on the longer-term solution.
  • Most importantly, realize you will survive without them afterward.  If you do need to make this hire, and I have myself — realize the team tends to rally when they move on.  You find a way, or at least come close, to fill the gap.  Someone steps up.  Or along the way, you just barely in time find someone else with the skills.  Or everyone just learns and gets better.

So that toxic employee that you still sort of need? Yes it happens.  

Sometimes, still hire them.  But … only 1 of them.  Only 1.  And start working on their replacement the day they start.



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