Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

Managers: You Can’t Get Rid of the Bad Apples Fast Enough

Academic snobs such as myself often place a lot of value on hard skills when hiring. No news here. Of course, we also look for great attitude and fit, given that so much – if not all – one conquers at the workplace nowadays is the result of collaboration and teamwork.

While most people in managerial positions agree with this approach at a hiring moment, there are often different perspectives when it comes to a potential firing moment.

I recently had an interesting discussion with a friend about this. When sharing workplace experiences on a no-name basis, my friend – relatively new at her role – found herself holding on to a specific team member who was giving her a tremendous amount of headache. The person at hand could not take feedback easily, was unstable, and had unpredictable and disproportional reactions when a request did not please her. My friend’s rationale: ‘I still need her skills and don’t have anyone else who can do her work for now.’

My advice to her: get rid of this person as soon as possible.

My friend was surprised by the apparent harshness of my recommendation. Unfortunately, this was one of the things I learned the hard way. We all make mistakes in our career, and as we get more senior the nature of such mistakes changes. From my time in managerial roles, that was the lesson that has stuck with me the most. You can’t get rid of the bad apples fast enough.

Naïve managers often think they can control the net balance of these problematic relationships, accepting headaches in exchange for work performed. They believe they can control the timing and evolution of that relationship, bringing it to an end when he/she/the firm is ready.

More often than not this is a mistake. Because a rational manager cannot properly estimate the responses and reactions of an emotionally problematic employee, the latter often controls the balance of such relationships. The time to dismiss a problematic employee is before he/she escalates problems to a barely-manageable situation.

I did not start my career thinking this way. I remain a believer in coaching and supporting employees, and setting them up for success. But experience and (a-hem) age have taught me to quickly distinguish between the cases that are salvageable and those that are not. I’m not talking here about the general “hire slow, fire fast” approach. I’m specifically referring to that defensive, emotionally unstable, drama-inclined employee that so many of us have had to deal with. The impacts of delaying action can be substantial for the manager herself, and for the firm. In my past positions I’ve witnessed unpleasant-yet-simple situations escalate to a range of unnecessary and unjustified drama that included formal complaints with HR aimed at burning a manager, unfounded claims of discriminatory charges, massive involvement of colleagues leading to negative rumors and gossip, and the less-common-but-possible legal threats and action. Who needs that?

While large companies may be better equipped to deal with this sort of matter, startups cannot waste time and resources with this. So do not fall into the trap of thinking you cannot live without that problematic employee. No matter what he/she is producing, the likelihood is that at some point soon your balance in that relationship will be negative. Cut your losses, and stay in charge of your relationship with your teammates.

Written by Ilana Grossman

user Ilana Grossman

Ilana was the CMO of Gust with experience at Digitas and Organic. There, she led the development and implementation of several CRM and digital campaigns for clients such as Bank of America, Sanofi-Aventis, Johnson & Johnson, and Astra Zeneca.

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