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Tips for Handling a Toxic Association Member in Your Online Community

Community Strategy // Toxic members are harmful to your online community. Learn community management tips on how to handle toxic association members.

Christina Metcalf
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Trolls were once thought of as mythical creatures, but they are now very real. If you’ve spent any time interacting (or reading) comments on the Internet, you’ve undoubtedly come across trolls.

Troll is a slang term for people who purposely sow discord and aim at getting people upset. They often do so anonymously or under a pseudonym, avoiding the personal criticism of others by hiding their identity. Internet Trolls, while annoying, are relatively harmless when they are recognized for what they are – instigators and curmudgeons. They can even be beneficial to an organization if their comments bring a lot of eyes to a post.

Unfortunately, a toxic association member who inhabits your online community is not the same as a troll. Toxic members are much more harmful because you’re connected to them. They are a member of your organization and they (most likely) pay dues to belong. This creates a much stickier situation when deciding how to handle them.

Why? Because trolls aren’t technically your responsibility. They’re one-off problems that don’t necessarily reflect negatively on your association. Toxic members are another story. You’re connected to toxic members and their negative actions are thus associated with your organization. If you don’t address issues it can look like you are condoning the bad behavior or worse, bullying. So how do you handle it?

5 Community Management Tips for Dealing with Toxic Association Members

Tip #1) Forget About What You Should Have Done

Dwelling on what you should have done only works if you have a time machine and can go back before the toxic behavior began. It’s not productive or helpful now, so let it go and start dealing with the problem.

Socious’s Senior Director of Community Management, Katie Bapple, also advises moderators not to be hasty when facing toxic members.

Controversial community members should not be dealt with compulsively; have reasonable guidelines and policies in place that draw a clear line so you know when it’s been crossed.”

Your online rules of conduct or moderation guidelines document should cover all your policies and terms of use for your community, and help you decide how to deal with controversial community members. This is not something that will keep bad behavior from rearing its ugly head (here’s hoping), but it does give you standard protocols to follow should there be an issue.

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If you didn’t put a set of guidelines in place before the problem began, now is the time to start putting one together. In the meantime, there are still things that can be done to deal with your toxic member.

Tip #2) Don’t Hope It Will Just Go Away

This is not an argument between children on a playground. A toxic member in an online community becomes divisive quickly. People begin to choose sides. If the toxic member is severely alienating, it can start to affect your members’ engagement.

While people love to watch drama on TV, their tolerance for it in a professional membership organization is much lower. You must deal with it quickly, decisively, and at least partially in public. To do this effectively, don’t start by reprimanding a toxic member in front of everyone. You may alienate a member who’s simply frustrated with the situation. Instead, your first step should be to reach out to your problem member privately to see if there are any issues you can help with.

At the same time as you reach out to your toxic member in private, you also want your online community members to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Other members need to know that you will take action to ensure the community remains a place of open collaboration and engagement.

To communicate with the community at large, consider posting (or reposting) your moderation guidelines in areas that have been affected by the toxic member. This is the public part of your response, and serves to remind people that there are rules in place that need to be followed.

Tip #3) Never Simply Delete the Comments

Ever notice when a child wants the parent’s attention, and the parent ignores them or shushes them, the child only gets louder and more insistent on being heard? Your toxic member will react the same way if you just go into the online community conversation and delete their comment. They will become more inflamed and vitriolic in their approach. Plus, you will get others talking about it because then it becomes a salacious question of, “Did you see that comment?”

While that sort of gossip will drive traffic to your online community, it’s not the kind of gawking you want. Instead of just removing the comment, respond to the discussion as a whole in a professional manner. Your response should gently guide the conversation back to safer ground by bringing up new information, reminding members of helpful points already made, or thanking experts for their insight.

Tip #4) Differentiate Between Targeted Ire and Eeyore Behavior

“There can be minute differences that separate overzealous, passionate community members from truly toxic members. Silencing the latter without discouraging the experience of the former is paramount.” – Katie Bapple

That means that not all angry comments are inappropriate. Some commenters are simply expressing passion or frustration with a situation and can provide useful comments, even if the tone is harsh or over the top.

It’s important to differentiate between someone who is toxic and someone who is angry. The angry member may have a valid point that needs to be addressed. The toxic member is one that continually practices divisive behavior. Toxic people breed dissatisfaction.

Reach out to members who are angry or just passionate and suggest more constructive ways that they could phrase their comments. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help your frustrated member, and try to provide resources that will improve their situation. By providing assistance, you show that your members’ issues are important to you and that you are available to provide support.

Tip #5) Put a Volunteer Between Your Association and the Problem

If you’re unclear about whether someone is toxic or disgruntled, try to place a volunteer between you and the negative member. Ask a professional friend of theirs to talk to them and find out what’s going on. Their online conduct still needs to be dealt with by you in a professional manner, but having someone reach out in a softer way can help you understand what’s driving their behavior.

Once you know where your member stands, you can contact them with the resources and support they need. If your member is toxic, then you can remind them of your online community’s guidelines, and clearly explain the consequences if they’re not followed in the future.

If toxic members continue to lash out, don’t be afraid to revoke their posting permissions. Your online community software should make it easy for you to control who can post to forums, publish blogs, and connect with other members. Use your security settings and permissions to ensure that toxic members still have access to the resources they need, but don’t continue to disrupt their peers.

Toxic Association Member Takeaway

A toxic member of an online community is even more dangerous than one attending a meeting because all of their discourse is in writing. People can revisit the comments over and over, as well as call attention to them. If you don’t publicly address the issue, your association staff looks ineffective and you may lose members over it.

Get to the bottom of the actions as quickly as possible and establish (if you haven’t done so already) what’s appropriate online community behavior and what is not. Your toxic member may be frustrated with the actions you take and not renew, but they may also appreciate your outreach and attempt to help. Make every effort to resolve the situation in a positive manner, then take the action that you feel will be best for your community at large.


Christina Metcalf

Chief Content Officer, Christina R. Green

Christina Metcalf is a professional writer with years of experience in content marketing for businesses and membership organizations. She specializes in telling stories that help organizations connect with customers and inspire action.

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