FROM DEBT AND POLY WHITE Special Correspondents
QUESTION: I have an employee who is a problem. She is often militant and creates problems with my other employees. Unfortunately, it is key to my operation. Honestly, she does things that no one else, including me, knows how to do. I would like to fire her, but I don’t feel that way. What should I do?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, your situation is not unusual. We have seen him many times. It is appropriate for small business owners to transfer various tasks and responsibilities to others as their business grows. In the end, you can’t do everything. If you want your business to grow, you must be willing to give up some of the tasks you performed in person when the business was smaller. In most cases, this process works well. Sometimes, however, the person who has made critical commitments becomes a business interruption or problem. When this happens, the business owner may be reluctant to change staff, especially if he or she believes that the business cannot function without that employee.
We have seen dozens of such situations. The business owner has an accountant, operations manager or salesperson who is the only employee who knows how to perform a critical function. This key employee begins to perform poorly either in his duties or more often behaviorally. The situation continues to deteriorate until performance or behavior becomes unacceptable. However, the business owner is afraid to take action, fearing what will happen to his / her business without the employee. The owner believes that his / her business cannot function without the key employee and the knowledge and skills he / she possesses. The owner is practically a hostage.
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Inaction only makes the situation worse. The business often loses other employees or customers due to the bad behavior of the key employee. The owner feels powerless for fear that removing the employee will lead to the failure of his business. However, despite the short-term pain, no one is indispensable. The owner and the business can go through this. For example, we worked with a company that lost its entire management team by rescuing one person in a tragic fire. It took a lot of effort, but the company survived and eventually thrived.
Realize that no one is indispensable: Through all our years of business experience, we have learned that no one is indispensable. Your business may experience some short-term failures. It may cost a little more and you will have to take the time to solve the problem, but you can overcome it. In fact, we never had anyone to say, I had to wait a few more weeks before releasing him / her. Instead, what we hear many times is that the business owner wished he / she had terminated the problem employee weeks, months, or even years earlier. Termination often brings a collective sigh of relief from all involved.
Find people to help you through the transition: There are services that can be provided by an interim CFO, accountant, operations expert or other key employees. These services usually cost more than your former employee, but this is a one-time solution. You can almost always hire someone with a lot of experience in the functional area you need, even if it’s just a temporary consultant. You may need to replenish yourself for weeks or months, but this can help you feel more comfortable in an area that you have previously abdicated from others.
Take a break: It can be very difficult to get a problem employee to train his / her deputy. You may think that you can attract someone to learn parts of the job, thus alleviating the disruption in your business when you fire the problem employee. However, in our experience, the established employee will most often not be willing or at least unwilling to help you relieve him / her of responsibilities. His / her complete control over the function has allowed the bad behavior without consequences. Take a break. Tearing off the bandage will mean some pain, but you will go through it again.
Don’t let this happen again: Before it happens, you can reduce the impact of this type of situation in two steps. First, document your processes. If you document processes, it is easier for others to intervene and take on the tasks in the short term. Second, train as much as possible. This spreads the company’s knowledge among more people. It takes a little planning and effort, but it is completely feasible.
As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you find yourself with a key employee who is causing serious problems in your company, get the company and yourself out of the situation. Don’t be a hostage. You can overcome short-term pain and get your organization back on track.
Doug and Polly White have a large stake in Gather, a company that designs, builds and manages collaborative workspaces. Polly’s focus is on human resources, human governance and human systems. Doug’s areas of experience are business strategy, operations and finance.