A few years back, Eric Sinoway wrote an Harvard Business Review article that struck very close to home. Talking about the conflicting tensions between employee competency and company culture, he wrote:

Vampires are the real threat. These employees perform well but in a manner that is at cross-purposes with desired organizational culture. Because their functional performance is strong, they acquire power and influence. Over time, they also acquire followers: the zombies who share their different set of values and aspire to better performance. Soon, there's a small army of vampires and zombies attacking the stars, high potentials and leaders who are doing the right thing.

Around that time, I hired an operations executive as a member of my senior leadership team. She appeared to be positive, but then the people underneath her starting telling me that she continually "trashed" me, the founder of the company. She literally began picking my life apart--how much was my house worth, what choices was I making as a parent, why did I think I should sit at the head of our conference table during staff meetings -- and conducted a running, negative commentary for other employees.

Still, I hesitated to let her go. It's hard to find strong performers for specialized role, and entrepreneurs face a dilemma around what to do when they realize a competent employee is harming the company culture.  Recruiting and on-boarding is very expensive. Some experts say that the cost of on-boarding a senior hire can be equal to their first year salary. 

So if you can at all help it, you don't want to once again fill the position you only recently filled.

For many years, I kept vampires onboard, even at a cost to the company's culture. When people told me that job number one was to "get the right people on the bus," I sighed. If only it were that easy. Letting someone got not only meant going back to the drawing board for that hire, but often taking on that person's work or stretching another employee to do two jobs during the recruitment process.

But I was wrong. My calculations didn't correctly acknowledge other costs. If you allow a vampire in, you run the risk of reducing the performance of all of your employees, and there's the mental toll it takes on you as the CEO. In quick order, that cost will dwarf the cost of replacing any one person.

Culture matters, but it's also such a fuzzy word that many leaders don't know how to calculate its cost or benefits. That's why I like so much Sinoway's use of the term vampire. An overly negative employee literally sucks the life out of your company. S/he lowers employee engagement, reduces retention, and saps morale.

With this particular vampire, I later learned she had been let go from her previous employer for 'creating a toxic work environment'. And that's pretty typical that a vampire will have a track record. (This also speaks to the risk of vampires bringing in other vampires.)

If you feel loyalty to your employees and customers, and you care about how they are treated and how you are treated, you cannot allow vampires to feed on your workforce. No amount of competence is worth that cost. As Garry Ridge President, Chief Executive Officer and Director, WD-40 Company which consistently has employee engagement levels in the 90 percentiles says: a leader has two jobs. Set the company culture and maintain it.

Next time you see signs of vampire behavior ask yourself:

By allowing a vampire to remain in my workforce, what message am I sending to other employees?

What is the real cost to myself, customers and employees of having a vampire in our midst? 

Published on: Mar 29, 2019
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