XPG Insights

Staffing industry recruiting news, advice and thought leadership.

XPG Insights

Staffing industry recruiting news, advice and thought leadership.

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Taken Hostage by Talent

We’ve written before about how hard it can be to take action when you have a toxic manager whose behavior is driving away talent. It takes courage and stamina to coach or discipline an employee who’s on the wrong path, but it can be even harder when that toxic employee is one of your top performers. 

There is no good business case for retaining an employee who is destructive to the company culture.  In his book Relentless: Leading Through Performance, Relationships, and the Lessons of Sports, Rich writes, “A bad attitude poisons everything it touches. Attitude sets the tone for everything that matters in the office: expectations, goals, relationships, communication, and possibilities. Getting this wrong is not an option.” 

Rich writes about the time he had to make a hard choice about a top performer.  

“I once had an executive recruiter who was a perennial top star. She went on all the awards trips. Always getting trophies. She was in a midsize market in the Midwest, and she was very well known by all the big companies in the region.  But we realized that the only way we were going to grow in the market was by adding people to her team. That shouldn’t have been hard to do, but it was almost impossible. 

The problem was that she was just plain mean.  No one could stand to be around her, and she ate anyone that we placed with her for lunch.  I actually had a good relationship with her because I was in management and she played up well (mean, but not stupid.)  Most of the management team considered her valuable because she brought in big numbers.  After having responsibility for that branch for about a year, I realized it was time for a change. We were never going to grow or get better performance with her on the team.  

We added three people to the team and the branch took off and grew exponentially.  But it was difficult to fire her because it was a very unpopular decision with the management team. (They didn’t have to live with her on a daily basis.) We went through the proper process to try to get her on board with the vision. We put her on a performance improvement plan and tried to manage her expectations, but she did not want to be a part of the growth plans.  

Upper management saw  – and valued – her present performance and not the potential of the branch.  Her branch manager didn’t want to fire her because it was unsettling for her to lose a top performer and risk dropping below the success line.  It’s true that the short term impact was painful. But I knew if we could move beyond the restrictions of a bad attitude and negative culture to provide opportunity for growth, we’d get better in the long run.” 

If you’re feeling like a hostage to a toxic rock star, start by doing the math. Turnover on teams with mean people is usually pretty high. In fact, it’s often one of the early warning signs that you have a problem. If you use the back of the envelope method of calculating the cost of turnover – around 50% of the salary you have to replace, not counting the inflationary effects of a tight labor market – you start to realize that the toxic rock star is costing the company more than they’re bringing in. 

That’s the easy math. It’s harder to calculate the reputational cost the company suffers. You’ll never know how many people chose not to work at the company because the leadership team didn’t have the courage to do what’s right. You may never know how much potential left the company with the people who quit. You may never know how much discouragement and intimidation is affecting your current employees and preventing them from becoming rock stars – ones who aren’t toxic. 

When you consider all that, taking action seems less courageous and more like common sense.  

“Losing will not always amount to a loss. Sometimes you have to lose those toxic relationships and bad habits to create a space for better things.” – poet and philosopher Gift Gugu Mona