There is no surefire way to avoid bad hires. 

So says Gina Stommes, a specialist in conflict management, employee relations, and recruiting. The owner and founder of HR Expertise LLC. maintains that employers can screen, check references and use screening apps but still, companies can end up with employees who exhibit extreme behaviors like bullying, harassment, theft and even violence. 

When that happens, according to a recent Harvard Business School working paper, the employer lose an estimated $12,489 because of other workers who need to be replaced due to their colleague’s toxic behavior. 

But while it may not be entirely possible to avoid hiring so-called ‘toxic employees,’ there are steps companies can take to reduce the risk of doing so, establish a culture that promotes healthy communication, and protect themselves if it comes to the point of letting someone go. 

When it comes to hiring, doing a thorough job of checking references and asking good questions is key, says Molly Gibbs, an organizational development consultant who specializes in workplace stress and communication skills. 

“Talk to their former co-workers and supervisors,” she says. “I often will ask about how the person handles conflict. If they’re doing a lot of computer work, do they have skills to solve larger team issues? How do they handle it when they’re faced with a difficult situation or something new that they haven’t done before? Pursue any way you can (to) come up with a question that takes them out of a technical role.”

Be cautious in the beginning, Gibbs advises. “If I have a doubt or can’t get a clear picture of how this person performs under pressure, I’m not going to hire them.” 

For companies that can’t afford a recruiter or a troubleshooter, the best option is to truly understand the characteristics that are needed for the job, says Stommes. “Do you need someone who is a team player or a soloist? Identify what you’re looking for.” 

Sometimes employees start out enthusiastic and later change. “A lot of times there’s something about the workplace that makes them toxic,” says Stommes. “It starts coming out in their attitude through bad-mouthing management and not being engaged in their work.” 

That’s where company culture comes into play. According to the National Labor Relations Board, employers cannot prohibit employees from talking about their working conditions. But Stommes says they do need to address the issue, especially if it’s affecting customers or co-workers. 

“It’s important that management routinely checks in with employees,” she says. “Ask them how things are going and mean it. Let them know that you want them to grow and have a positive experience. When people feel engaged and as if they’re a part of the big picture, it reduces the toxicity.” 

Gibbs concurs. “Hold meetings where people are talking about what’s going well in their work and what’s not,” she says. “Set up a culture of non-blaming and be very clear about behaviors that are helpful and not helpful. A toxic person may be more and more isolated if people are encouraged to focus on the problems, not on other people.”

When problem behaviors become apparent, as long as they haven’t crossed the line into more serious things like harassment or intimidation, Gibbs recommends asking the employee if they are open to coaching. “Whether they say yes or no, that will give me more information. I’m going to be as clear as possible about what they’re doing and what that impact is on others around them,” she says. 

Because Washington is an “at will” state, employers have no obligation to give someone a second chance, says Greg Rhodes, an attorney with Younglove & Coker. However, to the extent they do, it adds to the employer’s credibility later, if the employee is let go and decides to sue. 

Once the line has been crossed and other employees are being subjected to bullying, harassment or intimidation, it’s critical that they understand what steps to take. “Make sure they’re aware that they can come forward and that you have a reporting structure in place,” says Stommes. “Everyone should know who to go to and how to report those incidents.”

With extreme behaviors, the law offers no protection for employees. “You almost can’t afford not to fire someone like that who’s in your institution,” says Rhodes. He advises documenting everything connected with the employee’s behavior. “Make sure you write down the real reason you’re letting this person go and your concerns about them over time. If they later allege that you let them go because of some protected reason, you have evidence that no, it was because of all of these other issues.”

“If anything happens that is threatening, immediate action needs to be taken,” says Gibbs. “HR people will know what the next steps are, but the action needs to be connected to what’s happened. The people involved need to feel safe. If violence has been threatened, they may need to be moved out of workplace temporarily. We need to protect our employees, every one of them.” 

The employee’s direct supervisor may need support, she warns, either from HR or a higher level person within the department. “A manager may need to step in and make sure the supervisor is comfortable with what they need to do.” 

For small businesses that don’t have an HR person, consultants and legal counsel can help advise how to move through a legal process up to and including termination, says Stommes. 

Once the person is gone, how companies deal with the aftermath is dependent upon company culture, she says. “Usually it’s just a touch. Employers shouldn’t go into detail about why the person was let go.” 

However, in more extreme cases, Gibbs recommends bringing in trained facilitators to support staff members affected by the issue. 

“When any trauma happens in the workplace, you can be assured that co-workers and people throughout the organization can be re-traumatized,” she says. 

“We have compartmentalized work, and that’s not reasonable.  We need to start recognizing that health really means taking care of each other.”