Posted on / Updated on / in Blog & Employee Relations /

Human Resources professionals are not heartless.  Most that I know don’t enjoy firing people.  On the contrary, it’s a painful and difficult thing to do many lose sleep over it, but through it all maintain the understanding that it is a necessary thing to do. So why do so many companies avoid firing problem employees? If you see a fire, the logical thing to do is put it out. Why do so many managers seem to take a wide walk around it and just watch it burn, hoping that not too much is damaged in the process but willing to take the chance of some damage as long as they personally do not have to get too close.

Every organization has dealt with an employee whose behavior and attitude was so poor that it damaged the atmosphere of the organization, or at least of the department he or she was in. If the environment in your workplace is dramatically improved and people are happier and more productive when a certain person is on vacation, that might be a good clue as to who your toxic individual is.  Or if you find yourself spending an excessive amount of time discussing how to improve a certain individual’s attitude and how to get them to be a team player, you might know who your troublemaker is.

There are many reasons why managers don’t deal with problem employees.  The most common is simply the desire to avoid confrontation.  It’s hard to provide negative feedback. No one wants to be the “bad guy”. So, the bad behavior is ignored, tolerated, or, even worse, justified.  Other managers are ill-equipped to deal with the behavior.  They may make valid attempts to address it, but can easily become sidetracked when the problem employee diverts their attention from their bad traits to something positive they’ve done, how much they really need their job, or to someone else who’s doing a worse job.

Some bad employees have been around for so long that their behavior has become company legend, and therefore, acceptable.  Typically, these employees have lasted so long because they get passed from one manager to another because no one wants to deal with them once and for all. By the time they do get to someone ready to deal with the issues, they’ve become a company icon.  “ What? Fire Joe because he sneaks out every Friday afternoon for a round of golf instead of going to the staff meeting? Why, he’s been doing that for twenty years now!  I can’t believe you’d come in here and do that to him now . . . .”

Other bad employees are actually good performers.  They may be toxic to the morale in the company or have behavior that puts the company at risk for a harassment lawsuit, but the work they produce is such an asset that managers are unwilling to take the chance of losing it by confronting the behavior.

On the flip side, some managers are so afraid of litigation that they keep problem employees to avoid a potential lawsuit. They understandthat the problem employee could be an even bigger problem ex-employee. They fear that if they fire them they will be sued for discrimination or harassment or any other reason an attorney will represent.

One of the easiest ways to avoid firing bad employees is to avoid hiring them in the first place. Hire for skill and experience and job match, but also hire for values and character and integrity.  There are several assessment tools that can help you determine this. You can always teach people what you need them to know about the job, but you can’t always teach them how to get along with others or how to have a good work ethic.

The bottom line is that managers have to overcome their reluctance to deal with problem employees. With the presence of even one problem employee in a group, employees will be less willing to work together as a team, handle their own problems when they come up, and will eventually quit communicating with one another and with management. One negative attitude will affect your entire work environment and drive away your best assets. And if all of your good people leave because you refused to deal with the problems, you know who you’ll be left with.

Submitted by: Paula Agee, SPHR; Senior Consultant with IntegrityHR, Inc.

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about the author: Amy Letke

Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success.