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Weeding out the dissident employee

Hire or fire? As a manager you’re dealing with both, and neither is easy. Finding and hiring the right talent can be challenging and rewarding, but firing can be painful.
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Hire or fire? As a manager you’re dealing with both, and neither is easy. Finding and hiring the right talent can be challenging and rewarding, but firing can be painful.

I was recently talking with a professional colleague, and he was bummed — he was planning to fire someone. What happened? This termination was particularly difficult because the dissident employee had a combination of good and bad behavior, with the damage caused by the bad creeping in over time.

In my colleague’s case, he was not simply dealing with poor performance. It was bigger. He had the malcontent who was tough to manage because she sporadically did her job well, but also deliberately undermined peers and bosses. Like rust eating away at a car bumper, this worker clandestinely scattered toxic conduct and cast cultural harm. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had this person reporting to you? I thought so — me, too.

How do you recognize these bad actors and change their behavior (or ultimately decide to fire them)? I found timely advice on this topic from Jeff Haden in an article in the Denver Post (Aug. 14). Let’s look at several ways Haden offers to spot these saboteurs, identify the injury they’re imposing and help you decide on the action to take.

  • They thrive on gossip. Haden discussed an experience in which a new boss walked in on employees who were talking about a supervisor in another department. The new boss told them that if they were going to say anything critical about someone, it could only be when that person was actually in the room, period. Everyone gossips to a degree, but those who do so to profusion are not being productive. Gossip generates an impolite culture, causing others to have less respect for co-workers. I find that those who drive on the hearsay highway generate an ugly undercurrent that should not be allowed to flourish.
  • They lead the meeting after the meeting. Meetings are held to discuss ideas, make decisions and move work forward. With mutineers, the meeting starts after the meeting, when they bring up other issues or disagreements they didn’t bother to mention earlier. These people then take potshots at what was decided and tell others not to proceed. These problem individuals undercut the boss and manipulate others — usually younger, less experienced contemporaries — to follow them. Stop right there. Did you notice how insidious and gleefully enjoyable it is for the dissenter who changes the course of action and pulls the rug out from under the manager? There’s no room for these insurgents in the group.
  • They say, “That’s not my job.” Especially with smaller companies, everyone has to periodically pitch in to fill gaps. This may mean doing work outside your normal scope, stepping up when an associate is ill or staying late to finish a special project. The subordinates who insist it’s not their job to help are dragging down the rest of the group with that lack of camaraderie. Ever observe the prima donna who holds back when everyone else is leaping in to share the load? Yeah — that’s your negative player whose not-so-subtle actions are effectively shouting a lack of interest in anyone but themselves.
  • They think they’ve paid their dues. An employee’s true value is reflected in how they show up for work every day, added to what they did yesterday and what they’ll do tomorrow. Sure, people can briefly bask in the glow of a recent accomplishment, but their next achievement is equally important. Those who think they can coast and shift effort into neutral spread the notion that others can get away with lackluster output, too. Nuh-uh. No group needs a rebel pulling the rest of the team into a parking space of puny performance, which is where this “paid-my-dues” attitude resides.
  • They think experience is everything. Experience is great, especially when it brings better skills and broader achievement to the table — and not so much when it doesn’t. The laborers who think their experience automatically casts them as higher-caliber are running on an unrealistic sense that the past will always carry them through the future. I’ve found that a rich assortment of backgrounds is the better scenario — the seasoned and proficient, recently graduated new hires and those aptitudes in between. All of these contribute to a strong mix of knowledge, learning and energy sharing.
  • They use peer pressure. Sabotaging, negative associates are consistently trying to control and manipulate others to their personal benefit. This may include telling co-workers they are toiling too hard and need to throttle back to avoid making everyone else look inferior. Noticing this? Stomp on the brakes and address it now. These pessimistic players don’t want the responsibility and work that comes with leadership, but prosper on regulating the actions of teammates to enhance their personal existence. They are bullies, and there’s no driver’s seat for bullies in any group.
  • They hurry to grab the credit. While these difficult employees are scheming in the background they are also standing in the foreground to grab the glory wherever they can. We all know the opposite transpires with team members who share the credit among those who contributed to a victory.
  • They throw others under the bus. When things go wrong and suppliers and customers become upset, it’s often easy to find cohorts who heave the blame onto another, even if they are the ones at fault. Associates who step in, shoulder the issue and help generate a resolution solidify the integrity of the company and themselves.

Step back for a minute and consider the above. What do you see? Like a smudge on an otherwise clear windshield, saboteurs’ self-absorbed, self-advancing, manipulative behavior appears as a dark spot on the team — a smear frequently emerging to destabilize the success of others for their own benefit.

Although my colleague was disheartened about terminating a direct report, the need to eradicate sinister conduct became paramount once it was identified and validated. In his case he previously held several conversations with the person involved, reiterating the changes needed to rectify the situation. The employee either couldn’t or wouldn’t amend her actions.

What’s another aspect of this that makes it messy to manage — besides nearly everything? It starts slow and builds — yeah, that’s part of the offending players’ plans. They sow unsavory vibes in selective chips and dents, avoiding detection while intentionally chiseling away at the group’s balance and rapport. If left unchecked, they suck the confidence and collaborative spirit out of the crew. Distrust and diminished productivity are only part of what’s left behind.

Do you have a dissident worker displaying any of these traits? Find a healthy balance between giving eyebrow-raising attributes an initial benefit of the doubt while watching for and dealing with off-putting patterns. Be vigilant while avoiding becoming paranoid. Encourage the development of a gleaming team of cooperation and mutual support, and you’ll steer clear of being burdened with firing and instead look forward to your next hiring.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.

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