columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I belong to a church that people's families have attended for generations. One of our members has acted as secretary for more than 20 years. A few years ago, we hired a new pastor and this secretary does not like him. She's always been a prickly person to work with, frequently overstepping her professional boundaries because of her family connections. However, over the past few years her unprofessional attitude has started affecting the rest of the members, as well as outside groups.

She has flat-out refused to embrace and use new technology that would allow her to adapt to her changing job, and her work quality has gotten worse over time. Today in a meeting about an upcoming fundraiser, she showed up and publicly accused the pastor of misappropriating some of the funds in the budget. The finance committee assured her that the pastor's compensation was correct and in line with the standards used by the governing board of our denomination and she spoke over them, asking, "Oh, so we have to do what they say?" It's like she's forgotten that she's an employee and the committee members and governing board are her bosses.

Apparently she's been name-calling and losing her temper with the pastor's wife in private, calling her a "loser" and yelling at the pastor for wearing jeans to the office on Saturdays. She's also been making decisions that are none of her business, such as whether or not outside groups can use the facilities, or who can contribute which items and talents at which church events. She's been mean and bullying to other church members in general.

I'm curious as to how you would approach this situation. The main trouble is that she's threatening to leave in a huff and take her family and friends with her. In our small church, that will actually have an impact.

I feel that this has become a conflict of interest. If she doesn't respect the pastor, she can't be working as his assistant. I'm of the mind that we should tell her that her concerns are welcome as a church member but that she's no longer welcome to stay on as an employee, as she has not been properly performing her job duties. I also feel that once she's gone and not stirring up trouble, we'll attract more people because we won't have someone so off-putting acting as front for the church. How would you approach this situation?

Green responds:

Yep, totally agree with you. The only thing I'd tweak is that because there's an audience for this decision (other church members), it would be wise to give the secretary a final warning before firing her -- clearly lay out how you expect her to operate in her job and what behavior is unacceptable and can't continue, and clearly state that if the issues aren't immediately resolved, you'll need to let her go. It sounds like it's probably a lost cause and she isn't likely to suddenly start performing at the level needed, but by giving her a warning and a final chance, the church will be able to tell members who ask about the situation that they did those things.

But here's the big thing that I want people to take away from your letter: You cannot let yourself be held hostage to a bad employee.

I regularly hear managers say "we have a terrible employee who is causing problems like X, Y, and Z, but we can't fire her because it'll cause upheaval on the staff / she's connected to a VIP who we have to keep happy / no one else knows how to do her very crucial job / she has too much institutional knowledge / she'll badmouth us in the community / etc." As soon as you hear yourself saying that you can't fire a bad employee because of Reasons, that's a flag that you have a huge problem on your hands and that you need to immediately and actively start working to change the situation. You have to find a way to be OK with firing bad employees; you can't let your organization be hostage to a destructive force.

And really, the reasons that people feel "held hostage" are generally pretty bad ones. If you won't let someone go because no one knows how to do her job, what are you going to do when she resigns one day? Or has a serious health issue that takes her away from work for a few months? Or makes demands that you just can't meet? Or, if you won't let someone go because she'll trash-talk you in important communities, why are you entrusting knowledge of the inner workings of your organization to someone who you believe would act as an enemy if given the opportunity? And are you really willing to give this person what amounts to the power to make any demand on you that she wants?

If you find yourself feeling hostage to a bad employee, you can't just shrug your shoulders and figure that you have to deal with it. You have to actively work to free yourself and your organization from that trap. Sometimes that means short-term pain (like a VIP is upset with you -- although often that can be cleared up by a straightforward account of what happened). But 99 percent of the time, dealing with that short-term pain is going to save you far more pain over the long-term.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to