Lessons From The Front Line: Part 1 – Dealing With The Toxic Employee


I am in the middle of teaching another of our Exploring Dimensions of Personal Leadership program.  In it, one video I play is about the awesome food business in Ann Arbor, Zingermans, which was written up in INC Magazine and the NY Times as the “coolest small business in America”.

The video describes how Zingerman’s creates their fabled service culture.  Co-owner Ari Weinzeweg discusses some of the leadership steps that make it happen by focusing on specific behaviors built into their organizational “recipe” for providing great service.   He said from his experience, 5% of your employees will naturally deliver extraordinary service no matter what you do – since it is in their nature.  There is another 5% at the opposite end of the spectrum that will deliver terrible service, and the ones in the middle will be influenced by how you train, recognize, act, and reward them.   In one pointed moment talking about the bottom 5%, he offers the prescription: “you know what to do there, get rid of them . . . quickly”.

In class, the participants talked about this – about how one person who is not a team player or exhibits a “bad” attitude can easily drag down an entire team.   While every participant acknowledged that some people are like a cancer to the organization, and leaders need to address this problem; they also said it rarely happens in their own organization.

You probably know the reasons why it doesn’t happen, if you work in a mid to large-sized company or organization.   The guidelines and systems in place in most companies make it hard to fire someone.  We have to go through multiple rounds of documentation and coaching – to build a case that your HR officers and employment law attorney will bless.

For this particular group of (in my view highly motivated and effective) middle managers, they ALL said they tend to avoid the issues because it takes so much time and effort to follow established protocols.  I think they would all acknowledge that by doing so, they are accepting a certain level of “drag” on their organizational performance – like knowingly deciding to enter a race with barnacles on the hull of your boat.

It seems to me that we too willingly accept that this kind of organizational inefficiency EVEN when we are periodically faced with the need to cut budgets and streamline spending.  It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Now, I’m not trying to blame HR for this problem, and they have an equally compelling argument that we as managers often are remiss about sharing honest feedback with under-performing employees, which creates a greater chance for a wrongful termination lawsuit – which we don’t want either.

So there we are – both arguments have validity – but in the end, the team and the organization still suffer.  Here are some points to consider.

Some people are not coachable Many people do respond to coaching feedback and will try earnestly to modify their behaviors in response to legitimate, constructive input.  But, in my experience, some people are not coachable.  If your flaw is due to a deficient attitude or broken moral compass (rather than a deficiency in some skill knowledge) it can be really hard to change these things.   The door to change can only be opened from the inside, as they say.   Also, we as managers are a scarce resource.  We have limited time and energy and must decide where to spend it so that it delivers the best return.  I don’t think our job as managers is to FIX broken employees.  It is to communicate clearly what we want, provide the needed resources, offering guidance and help as needed.  After that, the rest is up to the employee to accept responsibility for his or her own performance – addressing any shortcomings they have.

Our employees must own their career and their own professional growth. In many companies it is the reverse.  We seem to believe we are obliged to act in a paternalistic way, treating our employees as if they were child-like.   Yes, we have an agenda of what we are trying to accomplish as a part of executing organizational strategy.  This may also suggest the need for training around new skills and behaviors.  In this case our job as managers is to offer the requisite training, but the employee is the one who has to decide if to take it.  They should have a choice.  If they don’t, they should understand that may make them redundant, but we should refrain from being coercive about it.

We should be willing to accept more lawsuits.  In my career, I don’t think I ever saw a case where my HR and legal advisors felt the documentation was sufficient to justify termination (barring the commission of a crime).  I understand their bias to help protect the company against legal challenges and bad publicity.  No one wants to get involved in a lawsuit.  That consumes resources and costs money.   But we need to consider the whole equation.   We can probably estimate how much a legal proceeding would cost (or its out-of-court settlement).    But, what is the cost of keeping the toxic employee?  I know it is hard to measure this expense, but we all can agree it is not ZERO.  It is likely larger than we imagined.  Why are we more willing to accept that expense than the threat of the legal challenge?   Looking back on many situations in my own business, I think we should have been willing to accept the risks of more lawsuits, leaning instead in favor of preserving the well-being of the whole team.  I keep thinking of the speech by Captain Spock in Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan when he tells Jim Kirk that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few . . . or the one”.

Take seriously our obligation as managers to be honest.   I hear this comment also, that too often we as managers FAIL to accept our own responsibility to speak truthfully, frankly (and in some cases brutally) to employees who are not living up to performance or behavioral expectations.   The reasons are many – we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we fear an unpleasant confrontational outburst, or we don’t want to jeopardize work-in progress at crucial moments.    But whatever the reason, the outcome is the same.  Bad behaviors are perpetuated, and by our willingness to accept such behavior, we are also laying a foundation that makes it harder to take action down the road.   When we are inconsistent in our demands for performance, we expose ourselves to poor morale and more legal risks.   We need to be consistent, fair and honest. We must also be there to help employees if they respond with a request.

DON’T pass your problem child off.   I see this often in larger companies.   You didn’t want to deal with the whole endless process of documentation and improvement plans, so you tolerated the toxic employee.    Then you see a job posting in another part of the company or have the chance to influence a coming re-organization.  You pass on your problem child to another manager.  You rationalize it by saying “well, maybe in a different job role or with a different boss, that person might find their niche.”   Bull. You failed at your job, and you should be ashamed of yourself for not addressing your own problem.  You failed your team.  And, you failed your employee.

Final Thoughts

I know some of these concepts are harder to do than to write about.   But sometimes leading is not easy, and if these harder parts are not ones you are comfortable tackling, then maybe YOU should consider a change in your role.  You might also consider whether your subordinate managers or supervisors are not stepping up as they should.  If so, you have an important coaching session to complete.

I welcome opposing views on these thoughts.  It is a big issue in corporations everywhere.  This is something about which I think we should all be talking.

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