Terminating problem employees may lead to unexpected trouble

June 14, 2019
Terminating problem employees may lead to unexpected trouble

This Washington Business Journal Column, “Terminating problem employees may lead to unexpected trouble,” was originally published in the Washington Business Journal as, “Difficult staffers out, that’s all anyone can talk about.” This management consulting column was part of a series, aptly named, “Corporations on the Couch”. Here, Dr. Lynn Friedman, psychologist, psychoanalyst & executive coach examines how even a legitimate termination can stir anxiety and fear in colleagues & subordinates and how these feelings might be understood and addressed.

After many sleepless nights and second chances, you fired Joe Smith. It wasn’t easy.

You spent weeks documenting poor performance, consulting legal counsel and worrying. You told Joe how he needed to change in a thoughtful, straightforward way. You offered coaching and classes on company time and the company dime.

In spite of your efforts, Joe didn’t change. He still had difficulty doing his job, which was getting in the way of corporate goals and demoralizing his staff. You heard never-ending complaints from colleagues, subordinates and customers. So finally, you terminated him. Not your favorite job, but when you’re the boss it goes with the territory.

You expected kudos from employees or at least a huge sigh of relief — after all, they’ve been complaining about Joe for years. Instead, as staff and colleagues discovered that Joe was terminated, you begin to hear rumblings and whispers about your unfairness. The anxiety among his (formerly) unhappy subordinates is palpable. You begin to wonder, “What’s going on?”

Having been scrupulously fair to Joe, you feel more than a little puzzled and even a bit hurt by the gossip. You’d like to tell your side of the story. But on the advice of legal counsel you cannot speak out.

Many corporate leaders are surprised to learn that, at least initially, any termination — even the termination of a poorly regarded employee — might be regarded as a loss. And loss leaves everyone a bit disoriented.

For employees who reported directly to Joe, the anxiety may be particularly acute. Any employee, no matter how competent, is forced to make certain compromises when working for a dysfunctional boss. That boss might ask employees to keep secrets about departmental problems and might indicate that the corporate leaders are not to be trusted.

After years of hearing and perhaps believing that the leadership is untrustworthy, Joe’s staff must now switch allegiances. This can be very stressful, particularly if the employee has uncritically accepted Joe’s perceptions.

Joe’s staff might also worry that their own shortcomings, previously eclipsed by Joe’s inefficiencies, will now be exposed. They might be apprehensive, wondering how they will fare under a more transparent regime. Those who exploited Joe’s problems to their advantage realize this will likely come to an end.

Staff members who didn’t work closely with Joe know little about the facts. For those vulnerable to self-doubt, the absence of information may be disturbing. They may worry: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

In an information vacuum, it’s human nature to use one’s imagination to account for an unexplained turn of events. As their trepidation rises, people gossip with their colleagues — who are equally ill-informed.

Your everyday behavior may be interpreted in a distorted light as employees seek information to confirm or disconfirm their apprehensions. In the absence of objective information, they project their anxieties onto you. Employees whose early histories included untrustworthy authority figures paint you as an ogre, while those with more positive early beginnings may be cautiously optimistic.

This latter group can be a valuable source of support in your efforts to restore a healthy organizational homeostasis.

People who are self-confident, secure in their relationship to you and sophisticated about termination processes will know that you cannot discuss this situation and will likely give you the benefit of the doubt.

Moreover, they may convey this viewpoint to others. It’s important to remember that as the dust settles and a more favorable work climate is established for these “orphan” employees, your willingness to do the heavy lifting in the face of these unpleasant obstacles will be respected.

Face the uncomfortable facts

In the interim, how can you reduce anxiety, quiet the rumors and get back to work?

An important first step can be to acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation. Let employees know you understand that this is a loss and transitions create uncertainty.

You can say something like: “This is uncomfortable and a little sad for all of us. We find ourselves in a situation in which there have been changes that we can’t talk about. I can’t discuss the specifics of this situation. But, what I can do is talk with you about each of your roles and about the concrete expectations I have for each of you. I can tell everyone about how our evaluation and disciplinary procedures work. If anyone has a particular question about whether they are doing a good job, I’d be glad to talk with them about how they can be a top performer.”

You should also reassure Joe’s staff that they start with a clean slate in your view.

Terminating dysfunctional employees is never easy and must be followed by supportive outreach to affected employees. When handled correctly, the result can be new confidence in corporate leaders, improved morale and increased productivity.

Those seeking executive coaching, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis are welcome to give me a call: 301.656.9650. Learn more about me, here.

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