Subscribe to Inc. magazine

Can You Afford to Fire Your Superstar?

She's your top sales rep--she generates nearly half your revenue--but she just did something unethical. Should you let her go?

Dear Jeff,

I just discovered a salesperson cheated on an expense report. I fired an employee last year for the same thing. Unfortunately this salesperson generates almost half our revenue. What should I do? —Name withheld by request

I definitely understand why the answer doesn’t seem clear cut even after you set a precedent. Do you let her go and risk the potential impact on your business?

If sales are heavily relationship-based in your industry, when she goes many of your best customers may go with her.

First, make sure you have all the facts. Maybe she spent more than your guidelines allow on one expense category (like dinner with a customer) and shifted some of that cost into another category. While exceeding a guideline and trying to cover it up is a problem, that's a judgment error deserving of a conversation, not termination.

Then, if you determine that she didn’t make a mistake but intentionally overstated expenses in order to pocket the difference, you need to let her go. No matter how important she is to your business, stealing is stealing. Plus it's likely whatever you did find was the tip of a larger unethical iceberg; an employee who cheats on her expense reports is probably breaking other policies too.

As for the impact on your business, take a critical look at your sales process. Why was she such a superstar? Most great salespeople have skills that can be copied. Sales is certainly an art, but it's also a science. Science can be copied.

Also keep in mind that even if you choose not to let her go you still have a problem. She could choose to leave at any time. Sure, she's talented, but there are bound to be additional reasons she outperforms your other salespeople: Your sales process may be flawed. Your sales training may be ineffective. You may be looking for the wrong qualities when you hire new salespeople.

Identify the problems and fix them. All other things being equal, no one salesperson should outperform others by a huge margin—if one does, something is wrong with your marketing and sales process.

One other tip: Other employees will want to know why she was fired. When asked, just say, “I'm sorry, but whatever happened is confidential.”

Don't grandstand. Don’t puff out your chest, deepen your voice, and self-righteously say, “No one is bigger than the company.”

Employees will respect the fact you did the right thing. Don't spoil it by patting yourself on the back.

Have a question? Email and it may appear in a future column. Please indicate if you would like your name and/or company name to appear.

Last updated: Feb 27, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

Register on today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments

Or sign up using: