Don’t let a bad apple spoil a good employee's day

By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal

Today I am writing about a pretty basic topic, nothing earth shattering but still worthy of review.

Over the years I have been away from direct management of my own business I have taken to teaching MBA students and working as a coach for mid-size business owners. I find it is helpful to revisit the mistakes I made back “in the day” so I can remain somewhat humble and in touch with the uncertainty faced by those who now face the everyday risks of employing and managing. It is easy to forget that I didn’t do everything right.

One of the toughest lessons that I had to learn was the cost I incurred by allowing toxic personalities to become and remain part of my organization for too long. If you ask business owners in general about this experience, you’ll generally find that about half of them will quickly admit to the same mistake, then there’s another half of the remainder who are still too embarrassed to admit it.

So why so many business owners making the same mistake? In a 2014 New York Times article, “The Long Odds of Reforming an Employee Who is a Destructive Hero” author John Grossman takes us through an analysis of the psycho-drama that surrounds both these employees and the business owner they ensnare.

What’s the one thing that employers are most seduced by? Results, pure and simple. In my own case I made the “falling in love with results” only twice in 25 years and both times I should have seen it coming and both times it cost me the respect of my employees.

What are the signs that you’ve got a destructive hero among your employees? Here’s a short list of traits…

  • Almost always high performers, so much so that you believe their results would be near impossible to replace.
  • They put unusually high demands on your time, either directly because they need attention, or indirectly in the following ways…
  • Other employees don’t enjoy working with them, find them offensive in some way or overly critical, demanding of exceptions to practices or special attention to their needs.
  • You wind up cleaning up the upsets they create with fellow employees.
  • They are high producers but hard to manage or resist management altogether.
  • They are complainers.
  • While producing results they neglect aspects of their work they don’t enjoy and expect to be forgiven or have other employees cover for them.
  • Good employees leave and let you know that the offending employee is the reason why and they are disappointed in your for not handling the situation.

Those of us who have dealt with the destructive hero usually have another experience in common: our failure to reform the employee in question.

Grossman suggests the following:

“Confront the destructive hero with his or her unacceptable behaviors; get agreement that specific changes are necessary; and set a deadline of several months to make and maintain the turnaround necessary for continued employment. Along the way … be sure to document the changes or lack of changes that ensue, that way establishing grounds for dismissal and protection against retaliatory lawsuits.”

Or, if it were me offering advice I’d say something to the effect of “Look, before you put any more time and energy into this employee, think about the number of hours you and others have spent with them already. In addition, imagine how many hours their previous employer spent? OK, now look into the future and answer this question honestly: how does this story turn out?”

If you answer the question honestly and the answer is that the employee fails to change their behavior, then my suggestion is to begin documenting the offending behavior and give yourself a deadline by when you’ll dismiss the employee (no more than ninety days) and at the same time begin looking for a replacement like there is no turning back. Of course you should begin by letting the employee in question know specifically that there is a problem.

And as for you, don’t make this mistake more than a couple of times and have the second time be your last. You may think day to day that you got into your business to make money, which is sort of true. What is more true is you want to do something you enjoy doing, get rid of whatever and whoever reduces your enjoyment and that of your other employees.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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