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GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport June 2024

How to Handle a Toxic Team Member

Christopher Earley


  • It is crucial to appreciate the potential impact a toxic team member can have on office morale and culture.
  • Even if the person is producing at a high level, if he is toxic, he must go.
  • Were there signs you missed when vetting the team member? How did this person slip through the cracks?
How to Handle a Toxic Team Member
Gary Tumilty Photography via Getty Images

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If you’ve ever hired someone to work at your firm, you’ve probably had some hits and some misses. Hiring is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges (possibly the single greatest challenge) of running a law practice. It is so hard because it involves projecting future human performance. Sure, it is great when you hit it out of the park and hire someone who turns out to be an A-player. But that only happens so often. What is more common is that we hire people who turn out to be less than exceptional or even just average. Worse, sometimes we actually hire people who end up being toxic and go on to pollute our office. In my view, a team member is toxic when he meshes so poorly with the existing office culture that his continued presence has the potential to temporarily or even permanently destroy the culture we have built. If you discover that a team member you’ve hired is, in fact, toxic, here are some things to keep in mind.

The Effect on Office Morale and Culture

First, it is vitally important to appreciate the potential impact a toxic team member can have on office morale and culture. It does not take much toxicity on the part of any one person to severely harm and potentially even destroy your law firm culture. Culture is a precious egg that must be continuously protected at all costs. Culture is the unique DNA that makes up your firm and is what separates it from all other firms. When culture is degraded by a toxic team member, other team members will potentially resent you if you kick the can down the road and refuse to let the toxic team member go. Worse, you also potentially run the risk that team members may eventually leave if you permit the toxicity to continue. If you know you have a toxic team member, you must take action by swiftly moving on from that person. The longer you wait, the more likely it is the toxicity can spread within your practice. Don’t let that happen.

The Need to Act Impartially

Second, even if the person is producing at a high level, if he is toxic, he must go. Never have any double standards when running and managing any aspect of your practice. Your team will respect you for having the stomach to make the right decision for the practice by letting go of a high producer who also happens to be toxic. I know for a fact that many law firm owners will look the other way. They reason that if a team member is a high producer, they can tolerate the toxicity. That is a major mistake. The quicker you can remove the toxicity, the better, regardless of how much money the toxic team member is making you. When running your practice and confronted with this or any other decision, always play the long game—do not take action based on what is best for your firm today but on what is best for your firm tomorrow.

Lessons for Your Next Hire

Third, it is important to learn from the hiring mistake. Were there signs you missed when vetting the team member? How did the person slip through the cracks? Did you have a hunch that something was not right, but you went ahead and hired the person anyway? Make it a learning experience so that the chances of it happening again are reduced. You must always have a thorough and comprehensive hiring process. Review your existing hiring process for any holes or gaps through which a potential toxic hire can slip through. This means having really well written and specific job ads, as well as very intentional interview questions. Have all potential hires take a personality test, which will tell you a lot about how they think, how they make decisions, what they value, and whether they would match well with your existing culture. Additionally, it is best to have multiple people, rather than just you, do the interviewing and hiring. By weaving other team members into the hiring process, you will have 360-degree feedback about the potential hire from your team members, which may help you avoid a hiring mistake.

Don’t Look the Other Way

We all hire toxic team members from time to time. Rather than looking the other way and doing nothing, make the hard decision by letting the person go, and then resolve to do better the next time. If you have any questions or comments about how to handle toxic team members, or want to see my firm’s written hiring process, email me at [email protected] because I would love to hear from you.