PEMBROKE, Mass. — This actually happened to a dry cleaner friend of mine. His 15-person operation was going pretty well. The owner brought his son, recently graduated from college, into the business. But soon there was trouble. His key staffer began complaining about the company and management. Everything was, “The kid didn’t know what he was doing,” or “This place is run by lunatics.” The rest of the crew became surly and uncooperative. The owner got scared—he didn’t want to lose his cleaner of 10 years—so he arranged for his son to leave.
Was this the right decision? Well, it was true that the son didn’t know what he was doing, but that was because he had just graduated from college and hadn’t spent a lot of time in the shop. But it was also true that the kid was young, energetic and full of enthusiasm. And he just might have been the best thing for the company. But the father will never find out because he cut his son’s dry cleaning career short.
We do know this. The owner was bullied by his veteran employee, and this person now has a hold over him. Maybe the cleaner will demand a big raise. Perhaps he’ll insist on better hours. He could even argue to take over general management. Who knows what this newly empowered employee will demand next?
As difficult as it would have been, the best decision the boss could have made was to call a meeting with his son and the veteran, and inform the veteran that he could no longer bad-mouth his son or the company. Rather, the staffer would have to give his son a reasonable time period to learn the business. If, after that period, the cleaner was still frustrated, he could return to the boss with legitimate complaints. If the cleaner would not agree to this, he would be dismissed. Just like that. The owner would escort the cleaner out of the building.
Bad-mouthing the company or its key individuals is unacceptable behavior. Bad-mouthing is destructive to the enterprise. It fills loyal employees with doubts, causes antagonism between workers, and can lead to a poisonous environment in which everyone is afraid to say anything to anybody.
Worst of all, customers sense the lack of compatibility and start to question their relationship with the business. A customer might say, “I hate when I go in there. It just seems like an unfriendly place. Maybe I’ll go someplace else.”
Yes, it is true that having a new person in management, particularly the boss’ son, is disruptive in the beginning. After all, there is normal resentment. Staffers have been doing their jobs for years, but the son is brought in as a manager trainee simply because of his birthright. But that scenario is a common business occurrence. It happens every day, and that’s the reality.
If a “bad-mouther” works for your business, set up a meeting with the individual. Let them explain what the dissatisfaction is all about. Let them talk. Don’t interrupt. In fact, it would be best if you acted as an impartial judge. Taking notes is not a bad idea. Let other parties involved explain their side of the story. See if compromises can be reached. See whether, if you make certain changes, you can pacify both sides.
Insist that bad-mouthing will not be tolerated, and end the meeting. Don’t fire anyone. Give the parties a chance to mend their ways. Wait a month, and then act if necessary. If the staffer hasn’t stopped bad-mouthing your company, call him in the office and fire him. Tell him why he’s being fired. Yes, this will cost you a higher experience rating, and might increase your unemployment insurance contribution. But it is the right decision, because indecisiveness is not good for the company.
Alternatively, if you find that the bad-mouther doesn’t mend his ways, you could make his life miserable and prompt him to quit. Forcing him to come in on Saturdays, come in early to open the business, take on more workload, and continually defend the quality of his work could be enough to make him walk out.
To those of you who are saying, “I don’t want to lose a good man,” you’re not losing a good man. You’re removing someone who, while he might do his job, is breaking down morale. You’re getting rid of a poison that will infect the entire operation, ultimately rendering your enterprise less effective, efficient and competitive. Be clear on this: no one is irreplaceable. Not your best cleaner, not your star counterperson, not your 20-year shirt presser. Not even you. We are all just cogs in a wheel.
Another result of taking action on this matter is that you will command respect. You will demonstrate true leadership ability. You will restore relative peace and harmony, critical for any organization. You demonstrate your pride in ownership by not tolerating such negative attitudes.
Years ago, when I owned a business, I visited a buyer weekly. The company had 400 employees and did $15 million in sales. After listening to the buyer gripe about this company issue or that company wrong-headedness, he would give me a large order. It got so I hated going there, but business was business. One day, he was gone.
The new purchasing agent, Emily, was taking over. She wouldn’t tell me what happened, but I found out later that the owner had gotten wind that this staffer was bad-mouthing the company, called him into his office, and fired him. No questions asked. No second chance. No explanation asked for. That is the way strong management handles a bad-mouther.
Such negativism is simply not good for the company.