What a toxic employee says about the leadership

A mentor once told a story about a time when he was struggling with the decision to fire one of his direct reports. He had been delaying the conversation — perhaps secretly hoping, as we all do, that the problem would resolve itself. Finally, my mentor’s boss addressed the topic directly: Why hadn’t he fired this underperforming employee yet?

My mentor was aghast. He knew the team (both above and below him) was aware there was a problem, but had no idea they were expecting him to take action so soon. The conversation then took a turn away from his employee, and to my mentor’s performance. His boss said this:

“We’ve already made up our mind about him [the underperforming employee]. Now we’re making our mind up about you.”

“Hire fast, fire… if you’re the CEO and feel the pain”

I’ve been struck recently by companies, especially young companies, that allow a toxic team member to stay on for far too long. When an employee is toxic, I don’t just mean they are incompetent — I mean they make it harder for other people on the team to add value. This behavior might be negativity, land-grabbing, anti-customer complaining, office gossip… it can run the gamut. But a toxic person is ultimately discouraging for the rest of your [good] employees.

Typically the blame for toxic employees sticking around is placed on CEOs for being lazy, inattentive, or conflict-avoidant. I think that’s 25% of the problem, especially in a company with at least 1 layer. The other 75% of the problem is this:

  1. Hiring and firing on the basis of gut instinct (which is the basis for “hire fast, fire fast”) is a privilege that often applies primarily to CEOs. Other employees rarely feel as empowered.
  2. The people who are infected by toxic employees are neither the senior team/CEO nor your junior employees (this is by design, but more on this in a second). The ones who feel the pain are your soldiers, your core employees. And if the dynamic with the leadership team isn’t a fully safe one, they won’t speak up for fear of being labeled whiners or tattle-tales.

Before we even get to the firing part, let’s acknowledge that hiring is just… messy. Are there small companies out there that hire in a thoughtful, organized fashion (e.g., asking the same questions of all candidates, interviewing an appropriate number, writing out clear job descriptions)? Absolutely. But there are just as many that don’t.

When your hair is on fire (which is when most small companies start to hire), hiring becomes a gut decision. Some people have a knack for this. Most don’t, and worse —they don’t know how to compensate. It is rare to meet a CEO who admits that s/he isn’t good at this skill, because it’s likely part of the vision they sold to their investors.

Especially when the CEO is the founder, s/he holds a trump card on culture. Culture is a nebulous idea, and is a very, very powerful trump card. And so naturally, if it’s anyone’s job to make a gut decision about hiring on the basis of culture, it’s the CEO’s. Firing is no different.

But… what if you’re not the CEO?

Let’s stop and put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is not the CEO.

If your CEO hired Frank and seems to believe Frank is a “culture fit,” it’s a tad uncomfortable to be the person who speaks up to say, “I think Frank is toxic” — especially if no one else feels the pain.

It’s uncomfortable not only because you’re implicitly challenging the CEOs judgment, but also because toxic people are tough to catch in the act (making you look like the asshole).

A toxic person isn’t going to behave badly in front of the leadership team, who won’t tolerate it. They also aren’t going to behave badly with the interns, who others will defend. Instead, toxic people start with the “soldiers” — the middle of the organization. This is how they assess what they can get away with, and with whom.

Your best employees don’t want to be whiners or shit-talkers. They want to trust the senior team’s leadership. So if a personnel issue makes it to the CEO, it’s likely that it took a great deal of time, energy, and risk for your good employees to raise it.

A CEOs choice to continue to allow toxic behavior speaks volumes about his/her commitment to the best employees, who are now thinking this:

“We’ve already made up our mind about Frank. Now we’re making our mind up about you.”