Supervisor Tips: Toxic Staff, Toxic Workplace

Photo source:,

You may have heard before that "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Corinthians 15:33).

From experience, I can definitely attest to this. How I usually refer to this is "crap rolls downhill". Just like 1 bad apple in a basket can taint the other fruit, 1 toxic employee can lead to stressed out supervisors, lazy staff, dissatisfied clients, and overall decreased productivity.

When referring to toxic staff I am specifically talking about staff who:
  • Habitually complain & have a negative outlook
  • Are always shifting blame/Their failures are always your fault
  • Are disrespectful or defiant towards authority
  • Ask for feedback, and then resent or argue with the feedback
  • Are habitually late or inconsistent
  • Consistently under-perform and fail to meet your expectations.....60% effort is good enough for them
  • Interject themselves into others business/must know about what everyone else is doing
  • Do not take their responsibilities seriously
  • Argumentative/must have the last word
  • Have 1001 excuses or reasons why they can't improve their work performance
  • Resists change or being made accountable (this type of person hates evaluating their own performance)
13 Personality Traits of a Disengaged Professional - Oh wowwww, I see lots of former staff in this infographic. Yup! I definitely agree:
 Photo source:

Toxic staff end up zapping away at the energy, enthusiasm, and productivity of management, because they have to be given instructions repeatedly before they comply. They respond to change or new ideas with skepticism and criticism, so time must be taken to get them on board. They complete assignments late, or submit them on time but incomplete, so the supervisor has to take time to meet with them to go over their assignment in detail. A busy supervisor just doesn't have the time or mental energy to devote to a toxic employee. Trust me when I say: its draining.

Thats just how this impacts management. Toxic employees also impact their colleagues. Even when placed in a group of energetic and dynamic staff, a toxic employee will cause others to begin to speak negatively, gossip at work, become less and less productive,  and grow distrustful of management. The negative attitude of toxic staff can be quite contagious.

So what can be done about this? Firstly, what policies and procedures have you and your employer put in place to ensure the workplace remains non-toxic? How is insubordination from staff handled? If staff are rude or harsh towards clients, how is that handled? Does the hiring and interview process take into account personality, attitude, and fit into the company culture? Do you make it clear to staff that energy and positivity are a part of their job? Do you communicate the need for staff to be patient and compassionate with the clients, especially when they feel the least like doing so? Do you regularly give detailed feedback (including constructive criticism) to staff, to help train them on how to respond to feedback? Are YOU providing a good model of emotional regulation? If an employee angers or frustrates you, do you handle this in a professional manner?

To my fellow BCBA's dealing with toxic staff, here are a few suggestions that may be helpful. If nothing proves to be effective, then just as I have talked about with poor quality ABA providers, or persistently uninvolved families, termination may be the best option.
  1. The very first thing you need to do is confront the individual about their behavior. It really is true that sometimes super disrespectful and apathetic staff are not aware their behavior is a problem.  Using calm and respectful language, openly discuss with the employee exactly what the problems are, and be prepared to give specific examples. This should be a calm conversation, not an argument.
  2. Explain to the employee why their behavior is unacceptable. Help them to connect the dots between what they are doing, and how it negatively impacts other staff, clients, and the supervisor/management. For example: "You regularly fail to meet my deadlines, and often submit work 2-5 days late. When this happens, I have to rearrange my supervision schedule and priorities to add more time to review your work so I can give you feedback. This then makes me late getting my own work done, and is also stressful".
  3. Create an action plan. Together with the employee, devise a plan for correcting their behavior. This may include some skill acquisition, for example the employee may not know how to properly respond to feedback they don't like/agree with. Determine how progress will be measured, who will conduct the evaluation of mastery (I suggest both of you), and what will happen if satisfactory progress is not made. 
  4. Lastly, consider disciplinary actions. Perhaps a written reprimand, a demotion, or a reduction in salary until specific performance criteria has been achieved.  Particularly since a toxic employee is likely to shift blame, I recommend some type of self-management or evaluation. Have the employee critique their own performance such as viewing video of their sessions with a client, or collecting data on how often they arrive late to a clients home. Its pretty hard to point fingers at everyone else when looking at raw, objective data.


  1. Thank you for this!! Currently dealing with some issues similar to this. It's refreshing to know it is not just a problem I have to deal with.You have some awesome ideas. Love your blog!

    1. Hi Samantha,

      Thanks for checking out the blog!

      Trust me, you are not alone. I have, unfortunately, had to work with toxic staff as the management over me wouldn't do anything about the employee. So I had to figure out on my own, how to minimize the negative impact of the toxic staff.
      Glad the ideas were helpful to you!

  2. Hello! I love your blog! I wanted to share my experience with you and would love any insight you have for me. I have concerns about the company I work for. I started working as an ABA therapist 5 months ago. I have my BA in human development and have worked with children for over 10 years, however, this is my first time working as an ABA therapist and with neuro diverse children. When I was first hired, they told me I would have 15/hr to start with. I had to first complete 40 hours of online training in two weeks to get my first client. Once I finished, I was told I would meet the client and my supervisor at the clients home. I had two hours with the supervisor where she showed me the programs and introduced me to the family and then the next day I was on my own. I always felt like I was unsure of my expectations because of my lack of training and shadowing. Well, I kept with it and kept asking questions but only had this one client for 5hr/week until a month and a half ago I got two more clients. I'm still not at 15hr/week. I just realized today that one of my newer clients has some aggressive and escape behaviors (the family has cancelled more than half their appointments which is why I just saw these since we haven't had many visits together). I was very alarmed and then frustrated that I felt I was thrown into a situation I have had no training on. I let my supervisor know and she was unaware of these as well as she has seen this client less than I have. I feel like I should have had more training than 40 hrs! I get a supervised visit once every other week per client but it feels like my only training is when a situation comes up and I have to ask my supervisors what to do. Which is fine in most cases, but after today and the aggressive behaviors and no knowledge about it, I'm wondering if I'm working for the right company. I don't want to give up on ABA as I'm fairly new to the field, but I feel like I've been thrown into some situations with no training. Is this typical? Do most companies provide more training and shadowing? I would really like your input if it's time to leave this company or leave ABA. Thank you

    1. Hi Karen,

      Thank you for your comment. Sorry to hear about your current work situation, it absolutely sounds less than ideal.

      I want to recommend a specific post for you, here is a link:

      I get lots of emails from people basically asking "ABC and XYZ are going on at my job, is this normal? Should I quit?" So I wanted to give information about indicators of a poor quality or unethical employer. I hope its helpful.

      I also recommend you go to the BACB website and look up the Practice Guidelines for ASD Treatment. It is a multi-page document you can download for free, and it has tons of great information about how ABA should be provided, what supervision should consist of, how reports should be written, etc. Specifically, there is a section that outlines the ideal way to hire and train direct staff. So I suggest reading that and seeing if it lines up with your current position. If not, definitely express your concerns to whoever is appropriate (might be your supervisor, or it might be the owner) and make it very clear you are not interested in working somewhere that is engaging in unethical, unprofessional behavior.

      Good luck to you!



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