#cajobportal Insights-131016 #Dussehra Special #HR and the Toxic Employee


HR and the Toxic Employee

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Leaders, when’s the last time you axed an underperforming manager?

Never? Really?

Then you’re not leading.

Does this sound a little harsh? Like a chapter right out of the World War famous General George Patton – Patton’s Principles: A Handbook for Managers Who Mean it!

Well, we are not suggesting you to be heartless, really.

In fact, this could be one of the most compassionate things you’ll ever do as a leader.

General George Patton had to inspire an army to perform the scary business of war and you, as an HR leader, have to inspire an entire workforce of blue and white collared employees

Let us consider a narrative:
Your GM-Finance Amar has stuck around in your company since 21 years. He’s loyal, a good guy, but he’s a terrible manager.

He hasn’t done anything drastic enough to get fired; he’s just pretty much ineffective.

What do you do with Amar?

You can’t just fire him, right?

That would be too harsh, and disrespectful, and what kind of a message would that send to employees?

He is a perfect fit for the “3C” box during talent reviews (lower left corner, the low performer, low potential group).

We also hear about Amar when the HR gets a call for intervention

“Dear HR, Amar is at it again, turnover is up, we’ve just lost another one of our star performers, our customers are irritated, etc…, can you have an effective guy to coach him, send him to a course, make him read a book? Worse still, “How about if we do another round of team building with Amar and his entire team?” And essentially, this is the second or third such request for intervention

finally, there’s that heart to heart conversation with Amar and he promises to make an attempt to improve

Isn’t there something else we can try?
In these cases, especially the last one, it’s good to read an article written in the year 2001 by Geoff Colvin, a Fortune magazine writer, titled “Make Sure You Chop The Dead Wood ; Mass layoffs won’t work if you can’t get rid of weak managers.[1]


It’s the most convincing case’ you can hear to get convinced that it’s time to act

Here comes the wave: General Motors to lay off 15,000, Whirlpool 6,300, Gillette 2,700, Aetna 2,400–even Greenspan’s amazingly smooth anti-lock brakes can’t slow a speeding economy without forcing companies to cut back.

Let’s just remember that a more significant trend, one you won’t see reported on any newspaper’s front page, is the opposite:

We’re in the middle of a vast and dangerous wave of non-firing.

Across America heartless executives every day are not firing employees by the thousands.

The damage to millions of lives, and to the economy, is beyond calculating.

Let’s be clear about the corrosive effects of avoiding this problem (underperforming managers).

A recent survey from McKinsey is fairly chilling:

Keeping poor performers means that development opportunities for promising employees get blocked, so those subordinates don’t get developed, productivity and morale fall, good performers leave the company, the company attracts fewer A players, and the whole miserable cycle keeps turning.
It gets worse. Employees know who the underperformers are. They know that the top executives know who they are. So every day the top team fails to address the problem, it’s sending a message: We’re not up to managing this outfit. Refusing to deal with underperformers not only makes your best employees unhappy, but it also makes them think the company is run by bozos.
As one would say, “Let’s be fair to Amar. He’s been here 21 years.”

But we say, “What about the eight people who work for Amar? You’re not being fair to them”.
A senior executive at Lockheed Martin, put it like this:

“”I feel there is no greater disrespect you can do to a person than to let them hang out in a job where they are not respected by their peers, not viewed as successful, and probably losing their self-esteem. To do that under the guise of respect for people is, probably, ridiculous.”

The toxic worker and impact on productivity

Think of productivity as a three legged race. It’s important for everyone to be heading in the same direction.

And there are these ‘toxic workers’ whose behaviour is so bad that they will cause real harm to an organisation. They are so awful that colleagues and customers will leave the organisation to avoid working with them, and their behaviour can even be infectious

There’s a pattern of de-energizing, frustrating or putting down teammates

Rationale of using the stick

Why don’t companies act? Some fear it would lower morale, which is nonsense. Mckinsey asked thousands of employees whether they’d be “delighted” if their company got rid of underperformers, and 59% strongly agreed – yet only 7% believed their companies were actually doing it. Executives often say they leave poor performers in place because they want the company to be seen as humane. That’s just more evasion of reality, of course.

In the same breadth, a Harvard Business School research based on the data of more than 50,000 workers fired from 11 US companies, calculates the annual cost savings of not firing a toxic worker at $12,489.

This is the expense of replacing workers who leave in response to a toxic worker on a team.

Similarly, report by US talent management consultants Cornerstone OnDemand stated that good employees are more than 50% more likely to resign if they have to work with a toxic employee.

Negativity can infect co-workers and be a horrendous time sink.So not doing anything will cause damage of trust, plummeting of motivation and waning of energy.

The nuts and bolts of the tough decision

Firing some is certainly a lot of hard work. There are often legal issues, and it’s important to be on the right side of processes and documentation.

Documenting a bad attitude or a difficult personality can be more challenging than issues with work performance

Establish a pattern of behaviour, the steps you took to address it, the information, warnings or resources provided to the employee, and the failure of the employee to change.

Clearly articulate to this employee that his attitude and inability to positively contribute to the department are performance issues equal to not performing primary job responsibilities.

They affect the department’s bottom line and overall effectiveness in ways that are harder to measure, but nonetheless drag the department down.

So the step-wise approach could be that first, the HR should once again try interventions like

  1. Dig deeper – Take a closer look at the behaviour and what’s causing it. Is the person unhappy in the job? Struggling in their personal life? Frustrated with co-workers
  2. Give them direct feedback because most of the time people don’t realize that they’re as destructive as they are. Cite specific examples drawing the relationship between the negative behaviour and staff productivity and morale
  3. Look for ways to minimize interactions between the toxic employee and the rest of the team.

If the carrot doesn’t work, you can also try the stick. Clearly, explain the consequences of refusing to reform oneself

The mantra is, “Repair or replace”.

If they are repairable in a short time frame, it is worth the effort. The HR should

But this must be a forced march, with a firm timeline for repair.

Otherwise plan to make the replacement quickly, as teams with toxicity are more likely to fail to hit their objectives. That hurts the team, the company and damages the reputation of the team leader.”

Summing Up

The path to firing someone is one of the emotionally hardest things a leader will ever have to do.


But you see, one bad apple can spoil the entire bunch

Its simple economics; it’s time to cut your losses

“Your stars can’t shine unless you cut the drag.”

Managers, if you’re not developing employees and acting on poor performers, you’re not leading. And you’re doing a tremendous disservice to your company, your employees, your customers, and your community. And you’re not doing Amar any favors.

It is a cancerous cell that must be separated from the rest of the body



[1] http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2001/01/22/295568/index.htm