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Are You Held Hostage by a Bad Employee?


Are you a hostage? Do you feel handcuffed to your desk by a toxic employee; imprisoned by an invisible bond?  Have corporate human resource policies made terminations so tricky and cumbersome that they are not worth your time and effort?  You are not alone in your misery.  Whether the cuffs are literal or metaphorical, far too many leaders feel impotent when managing a business team today.  Fear of litigation and increasing corporate bureaucracy are making the lives of contemporary managers challenging.  One manager stated terminations are on hold due to the pandemic and subsequent WFH (work from home) necessity. That's right.  COVID-19 is now the excuse for avoiding necessary terminations.

I am working with several teams to overcome this reality.  Before the pre-COVID economic boom, hire slow and fire fast was my advice to managers.  However, when the unemployment rate dipped below four percent nationally, my direction was to hire quickly and fire fast.  The chance for top talent remaining available while the bureaucracy took its sweet time was remote.  The pre-COVID talent war favored top employees, and waiting to hire resulted in a missed hire opportunity.  If you snooze, you lose.

Current corporate migration, WFH opportunities, and COVID-19 vaccines are reaccelerating the race for talent.  People are changing jobs in large numbers, and transitionary unemployment numbers are on the rise.  You now face an opportunity to upgrade skill.  However, you feel trapped by a bad team member, you cannot or will not terminate.  Does this feel familiar?

According to Forbes, managers spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about handling the wrong people.  They have way too many conversations with the person or other people about the person regarding the problems this person is causing.  Sometimes, they work hard to figure out how to shift or re-allocate work to make up for poor work habits or lack of skill.  HR will not let me fire them, or our company makes it impossible to fire somebody.  You are not alone.

However, bad employees are your fault if you do not react early.  They are like dead bodies.  It would help if you dealt with them, or the stink is going to get worse.  Remember, you get what you tolerate.  You train what you accept, and you deserve what you tolerate.  The first step with a bad employee is to clarify your expectations.  It would help if you were specific about what you want.  Do these things or stop doing these things.  Do not ask for general improvements.  It is time to speak straight and be direct about what you want.

Next, get a commitment from the bad employee for improvement.  If they do not commit, it is time to part ways.  If attendance is a problem, ask them to take action that you can measure in the future.  Once they commit, plan specific times to communicate and give feedback in the future.  Set a date and time to meet again in thirty days and stick to the plan.

Better Manager's Karen Benz says, "learn to confront respectfully and in a "carefrontational" way. Develop a performance improvement/management plan that will provide problem employees with an opportunity to improve.  Show them the value they bring and the opportunity to increase their value. Be clear in your expectations.  Be specific, have examples, and be fair. Let them know what you will no longer tolerate. Identify areas where they choose to make and where the choice will be made for them if changes do not occur. Revisit these issues with them weekly or bi-weekly. Look for change and positively reinforce it and, most importantly, follow-through on all aspects of your performance plan".

Often, managers, even HR leaders, misunderstand employment law to avoid risk.  They feel the risk after termination is more significant than a lousy employee.  This reality is akin to not having a conversation with your doctor about a suspicious lump.  According to The Cut, Some managers mistakenly believe they can't fire people because a person happens to be a certain race, age, or religion, or because they happen to be pregnant or have a disability. That's not how the law works, and managers have a responsibility to educate themselves about that (although that can be hard to do if they're working with HR people who encourage the same misconception, which is a thing that happens). Another variation of this is that the company requires so much paperwork over such a long period (out of a misguided belief that they need to do that to cover their asses legally) that managers conclude it's not worth the trouble not bother to deal with it.

I have written about HR dysfunction several times over the years.  The role of HR can be different depending on what the company rewards or prioritizes.  If litigation avoidance is the priority, decisions occur in one manner.  If growing talent is the priority, hiring and firing are easier.  U.S. News, Alison Green explains:

"The human resources department's function is to serve the business's needs; its loyalty and responsibilities are to the company. In some cases, that means advocating for employees against bad managers because it's in the best interests of employers to retain great employees, identify and address bad management, and stop legal problems before they explode. But plenty of other times, what's best for the employer will not be what's best for the employee, and the best interests of the employer will always win out. That's not cynicism; that's simply what HR's mission is".

[According to Inc., these are a few ways a bad employee can ruin your organization from the inside out:

  • He or she can threaten the morale of your other employees.
  • Bad employees do second-rate work and bring others down with them, reducing overall productivity.
  • People who aren't engaged don't provide the best service, and your customers will take notice.
  • If you aren't willing to make the tough decisions, your good employees will lose trust and respect for you.
  • Good people leave.

Firing bad employees isn't just about the "soft" issue of maintaining a feel-good culture, where every employee is a perfect team player. Disengaged workers cost the American economy $350 billion per year in lost productivity. Plus, if you keep bad people, good people will leave, and replacing them can cost up to 200 percent of their salary.]

The bottom line, it is time to break your bonds and escape.  The cost of waiting (COW) is far too great to avoid the work.  Your captor is not willing to let you go. Formulate an escape plan and take the first step toward freedom.  You may be institutionalized to feel a sense of normalcy with the current reality.  Let me assure you that this is not normal.  Every leader I have coached through this perception of reality is amazed at what freedom is like on the outside.  Release your inner William Wallace.  Aye, fight, and you may die. Run, and you'll live at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!