When to Fire Someone: Toxic Employees & The Curse of Mediocrity

Posted May 18, 2011

[Author’s Note: Yes, I know it’s been almost two months since my last blog post.  Where have I been, you ask?  OK, I’ll just come right out with it: I’ve been sleeping with another audience.  There, I said it.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ve been great; I just needed something . . . new.  Actually, as many of you know, I’ve been buried in event training and education land, working to get the Event Leadership Institute ready for prime time.  If you haven’t been yet, take a peek; the site is live, though the official launch is coming soon.]

Below is an advance peek at my next In Business Column for Event Solutions Magazine.

In my last column I talked about becoming a boss and hiring your first employee, and outlined the process for effectively training and ramping up new hires.  Alas, not all employees work out.  One challenge small business owners face is the hassle of replacing underperforming workers.  Larger firms with dedicated HR departments can, and do, manage this process more efficiently.

But with a small business, the owner typically has to do it all: fire the person and find his or her replacement.  Most people dread both tasks, the first because it’s wickedly uncomfortable; the second because it’s a huge, time-consuming pain in the ass.  So they end up ignoring the problem, rationalizing that the person’s performance is not THAT bad.

The damage a problem employee can have to your company can range from moderate to catastrophic, but in any case it is usually far greater than you think.  Let’s look at two scenarios.

The Toxic Employee

This is the person (let’s call her Toxie) who is unhappy about something (their compensation, their boss, etc.) and develops a chip on their shoulder.  But Toxie isn’t content with keeping her irritation to herself; she’s got to share her misery with others.  She whispers in the ears of her co-workers, firing them up.  “Can you believe they want us to work on a weekend without paying us overtime!?”, or, “We shouldn’t be expected to do this task; let the interns do it!”

Toxie’s frustrations aren’t validated until she gets others to join her cause and storm the castle.  She wants to bring others’ morale down to her level, and pretty soon her drama starts consuming more and more of everyone’s time. When that happens, she’s got to go.

Toxic employees by definition spread their malcontent around the office, like a cancer.   And like a cancer, they need to be removed before the damage gets worse and more healthy employees get infected.  In sports we see examples all the time of athletes that “infect the locker room” and become a bad influence on others; rarely are those teams successful, no matter how good that athlete may be.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Sometimes you’ve got a mediocre employee, however, with a great attitude.  Unlike Toxie, this person will be the first to admit when they fall short in their performance.  They don’t blame anyone but themselves, and they have the support and sympathy of their co-workers, and you, their boss.  This is the mediocre/low performer, so let’s call her Melo.

Now, you might think, what’s the harm in keeping Melo around?  There’s no collateral damage to others like you’d have with Toxie, right?  Wrong.  The risk here is that by keeping Melo around, your A players might be tempted to measure themselves against her, and start settling for A- and B+ performance.  Worse, they may lose respect for you by continuing to allow someone to stay on who clearly is not meeting the job requirements.  Either way, they become a drag on your company’s mojo.

In some ways, Melo is a much harder situation, because she’s likely to stick around longer.  Eventually Toxie wears out her welcome and pushes you to take action.  Firing Melo is like giving away a pet that you like but refuses to be house trained.  But if you want to grow a strong business instead of a half-way house, you know what you need to do.

Firing Someone

In my 20 years of running an event company I’ve probably fired 8 people, and the only thing worse than firing someone is firing someone who doesn’t see it coming.  That’s a sign that you haven’t clearly explained what you expect of the employee and/or given them proper feedback.  It’s a miserable feeling on both ends of the table.

To avoid this, make sure you lay out, in writing, your job expectations, and give frequent and specific feedback at regular intervals.  If the performance problem doesn’t improve, be very clear about the consequences that will ensue if it’s not corrected.  If you do this right, nobody should be surprised when they get fired.

Once you’ve bitten the bullet and terminated an under-performer, you’ll be amazed at the ancillary impact it has on everyone else’s performance.  It sends a message that not getting the job done will not be tolerated, and the other employees will begin stepping things up.  Plus, the replacement worker usually brings fresh energy and drive to the office and you’ll notice everyone’s productivity will receive a boost.

These tangential benefits, however, are lost on your business if instead the problem worker quits before you fire them.  Please understand, I would never advocate taking away someone’s livelihood just to boost office productivity.  What I am saying is, if you’ve determined that a worker is no longer a good fit for your company and cannot turn things around, you’re better off taking the bull by the horns and proactively dealing with the issue directly.  It demonstrates strong leadership and your commitment to high standards for everyone you hire.

5 COMMENTS

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  1. Howard
    Lisa Hurley, Special Events Magazine
    May 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm Permalink

    Howard: Well put–as always. As my smart labor-lawyer friend says, it’s not the people you fire who cause problems for you–it’s the people you don’t fire.

  2. Howard
    anne
    May 19, 2011 at 9:56 pm Permalink

    Your articles are getting better and better! Your humor, such as “sleeping with another audience” or calling the problem employees “Toxic” and “Melo” is brilliant.
    BUt, in the end, what you are saying is true. And, it is not pleasant to let people go and you gave clear examples of the negative consequences poor performance and attitude have on your business.
    You drive home your point in a brilliant way. Love reading what nad how you say it!

  3. Howard
    norman
    May 20, 2011 at 11:41 am Permalink

    great article,i differ on one point. i do advocate taking away someones job to boost office productivity,assuming that person performance is not up to par.

  4. Howard
    Chris McCloud
    May 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm Permalink

    This was a great read! These situations are difficult to deal with, but you break it down in a very clean and precise manner. We also just posted some advice on Toxic Employees, http://www.pcg-services.com/no-naysayers-here-how-to-fire-a-toxic-employee/ – Hope you find this useful!

    Chris McCloud
    Pacific Crest Group
    http://www.pcg-services.com/

  5. Howard
    Gwen
    June 1, 2011 at 10:43 pm Permalink

    Toxie and Melo sure get around. Too bad breaking up is so hard to do.