Now - or better yet, yesterday - is the time to fire the employee who spreads negativity, undermines leadership and disengages from responsibilities and co-workers.
The stakes are too high to wait, Thomas told CO--.
"Negative and toxic people can bring your entire culture down," she said. "They have true impact to your bottom line, your productivity, company morale, performance and customer engagement."
Later -- once an underperforming worker has been put on notice and given a chance to improve -- is the time to part ways if expectations are not met. Thomas urged managers to provide specific goals, close monitoring of progress and a reasonable timeframe to achieve performance targets. Should the worker fail to step up, it's time for dismissal.
Too often, Thomas said, companies fail to establish and articulate precisely what workers are expected to do. Without specificity, both employer and employee are surprised if things don't work out.
"A lot of companies don't set people up for success," she said. "They do not tell them, 'Here is what success looks like for your role.' You have to be clear as a leader what that person needs to do to achieve success."
How disengagement harms business, inside and out
Thomas puts the red flag of disengagement in two buckets. The first is internal disengagement that corrodes workplace culture, harming productivity and teamwork. The second bucket is external disengagement that erodes the customer base, harming a company's reputation, ability to build referrals, attract top talent and grow the business.
"Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost every year due to disengaged employees," Thomas said, citing Gallup's State of the American Workplace report. The research estimates that actively disengaged employees cost U.S. companies $483 billion to $605 billion in lost productivity each year.
"There are symptoms to watch for when you see people jumping on this 'disengagement train' that can be catastrophic to your company," she said. While these signs have not changed in years, some leaders fail to recognize or even excuse them, thinking today's relaxed workplace demands tolerance. Signals include:
- Whispering, congregation of new cliques; circulating stories, lies and gossip about the company and leadership.
- Disrespectful behavior and body language; lax personal appearance.
- Decreased performance.
- Workers "just strolling in when they want."
- Declining to participate in team events.
- Once-loyal customers and clients vanishing.
- Disproportionate negative reviews posted to social media and job boards, such as Glassdoor.
Establishing employee objectives brings poor performers to the surface
While disengaged workers exhibit clear signs, poor performers who ought to be fired can be harder to identify, Thomas said.
"You can have people skate under the radar who are poor performers and that is where it can become very dangerous because you don't even know it is happening," Thomas said. "Obviously, if somebody is not meeting your goals and objectives, it's time for that person to go -- but you have got to put it on yourself a little bit: Have you established goals and objectives for that person?"
Too often the answer is no, and specific performance expectations never get spelled out to workers, Thomas said. Gallup research found only 50% of employees know what is expected in terms of job responsibility and fewer, only 41% of workers, believe their job description aligns well with the work they are assigned to do.
"Be in tune with people," Thomas said. "Inspect what you expect and continually do that to ensure they are performing."
Monthly check-ins with employees, subcontractors, customers and clients provide opportunities to course-correct before a small problem becomes a big one, she added. Employee surveys that are anonymous can reveal brewing workplace problems to address before they become engrained in the culture.
"Your biggest job as a small business owner is to ensure your employees and customers are engaged and your commitments are followed. If you don't get rid of the negative and toxic employees and poor performers, then shame on you as a leader," Thomas said. "I tell people: That is your job. It is your job to get rid of people like that."