CHICAGO — In a perfect world, every employee would become a team member, creating a positive atmosphere and pulling together to bring themselves and the company success.
But in the world we live in, that’s not always the case. Sooner or later, an owner or manager is going to have to have a difficult discussion with an employee — one that will either turn that person’s performance around or be the last discussion they have as a company employee.
How leaders navigate this challenging experience will set an example for other employees, telling them either the company’s leadership is serious about productivity and developing a positive atmosphere for their teams, or that bad behavior will be tolerated in order to avoid unpleasant interactions with management.
The Cost of Accepting the Unacceptable
Why is it important for leaders to get ahead of behavior or work ethic deficits?
“Bad attitudes are contagious,” says Amy Wischmann, policies and procedures manager at Benzinger’s Clothing Care, located in western New York state. “When people come to work with positive attitudes, those are equally contagious, but when you have someone who doesn’t have the right attitude — it could be their work ethic, or they might just have a lot of negativity — that can really poison the well.”
The example sets the tone for the workplace and can lead to difficulties for the entire team, says Sean Abbas, president of Threads Inc., a software company he co-founded to help organizations review employees and manage performance.
“You’re allowing somebody who’s not doing what they’re supposed to do to be around people who are doing what they’re supposed to do, and you’re paying them the same amount of money,” he says, “And you’re hoping that somehow this thing is just going to rectify itself.”
This disparity can become a feedback loop, Abbas says, to the detriment of the company.
“If you’re replacing the employee doing things right and still have the employee who hasn’t been doing what you want, you’ve got real problems.”
Leaders Needs to Lead
While some leaders might not be comfortable in correcting — or confronting — unproductive or troublesome employees, they ignore the impact those workers have at their own peril.
“Leaders have to be on guard for two reasons,” Wischmann says. “They need to watch so it doesn’t lead to a loss of productivity. Perhaps more importantly, they need to be on the lookout for bad behavior that might cross the line into harassment, creating an uncomfortable work environment for other team members.”
Some leaders will avoid dealing with a troublesome employee and instead listen to the complaints of those around them, Abbas says: “A little bit of discomfort from 10 people seems to be more tolerable than a lot of discomfort from the one person.”
Abbas has found that this impulse isn’t rare — he’s found it in many companies he’s visited over the years.
“I’ve walked into businesses, and they’ll tell me, ‘We’ve got a real culture problem here,’” he says. “And the reality is, after spending about an hour there from the outside looking in, they’ve got one person who’s an absolute ass. I’ll ask them if they realize that, and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, but that’s just the way they are,’ and tell me how their skills and abilities are so valuable. What that owner actually has isn’t a culture problem but a leadership problem, because they’re unwilling to deal with the problems of one or two people.”
Abbas recalls a former employee of his that, while excellent at his job, was a nightmare to those around him — so much so that his department had a rash of people quit.
“We were having trouble hiring enough people to deal with the turnover,” he says. “We finally got to the place where we told the individual causing this problem that he needed to change the way he was doing things. The person got upset and just quit and left — and that was the beginning of fixing the problem long-term.”
While that employee took his skills and institutional knowledge with him, the turnover issue also quickly evaporated.
“If you feel like you can’t replace them, you’re going to deal with the byproducts of what they do inside your organization,” Abbas says. “Those people around them are also talented, and they might be great leaders in the future.”
Come back on Thursday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll examine ways leaders can improve communication to build both trust and accountability.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].