Published in The Houston Business Journal on September 26, 2014
Sometimes senior managers must confront a hostage situation, luckily not one with armed assailants. This one is far more nuanced – when a top employee holds the organization hostage with bad behavior that’s tolerated because of stellar results. It’s a reminder that managers must always be ready to face the question, “Should I fire my top performer?” For example, in the technology sector, that employee may take vital intellectual property out the door, and Houston’s shortage of IT talent can make finding a replacement a major challenge.
Let’s be clear – we’re talking about employees who make significant contributions to the bottom line, not personnel with support responsibilities.
No doubt you’re already aware of the person’s accomplishments relevant to his or her and the organization’s goals, so assess the damage and resulting loss of opportunity stemming from this person’s dysfunctional behavior.
The place to begin is with yourself. Assess your relationship with the employee – you may find that you helped to create a monster. Do you have healthy two-way communication or has that stopped? Does this person annoy you? While this isn’t grounds for dismissal, it does speak to your relationship. Ask yourself honestly if you’ve given preferential treatment in the past or enabled the poor attitude in some way.
Turn your microscope to the organization as a whole. Determine whether the top performer’s behavior is congruent with the values of the organization. While enlightened managers want to encourage diversity, individuality and proactive attitudes in their teams, those qualities in the extreme can become counter-productive. Several behaviors can be indicators of a problem. The top performer may be undermining management and colleagues through manipulation or deviousness. It could take the form of lying through omission – leaving out important information is as damaging as not telling the truth. There will probably be a certain amount of turmoil around this person’s function within the business.
Consider the interaction between the employee in question and colleagues, support staff and customers. This will be telling. Actually, you may find that the employee is well liked in some circles, especially outside of the office, so expect to deal with any consequences.
Once you’ve made the decision that this person has got to go, line up key allies within senior management or on the board of directors. You will need them if short-term financial performance is affected because of the dismissal.
Make sure that the dismissed employee’s customers/accounts are covered. Some managers may be worried about how to replace a top performer in a tight job market. Get other top contributors to understand the importance of over-delivering in the short term as you work through the transition.
Thoroughly document your case before firing your top performer. But don’t let bureaucracy keep you from doing what is right for your business.
James Thompson is CEO and president of The InSource Group, a technology
staffing and placement company in Houston. He can be reached at JT@insourcegroup.com.