Some lessons in business cause you personal pain. Others cause pain only to those around you. And, a few cause pain to pretty much everyone.
This is one of those cause-everyone-pain stories.
In my former life as a corporate manager, there was one particular decision I made that sent ripples through my team for at least a year. In some ways, my management career never quite rebounded and I remained gun-shy about personnel decisions for quite a while. It taught me more about how to handle problems than any of the good decisions I made during that time.
The Problem Employee
It all started with one particularly disruptive employee. She had aspirations to move up in the ranks, but I questioned her abilities. She started taking on work from other department heads without my knowledge. She would try to redirect things that other employees were working on. Worse, she would chastise me at every turn, usually in front of the entire team. This went on for several months.
What would you do? I'm not an attorney, but at the time I knew I had to follow a rigid process to fire her that involved written and verbal warnings, which I did. In the end it came down to one simple fact: she was not listening to me anymore and she was causing disruption.
At the time, when there was a conflict in the workplace, my tendency was to withdraw. This is not the best plan of action. Years later, I can look back and say the situation was quite unique and, in many ways, proved to be an invaluable learning experience. What I actually felt at the time was more like a vicegrip on my brain: keeping the employee around would cause more conflict but firing her would create even more problems. My "fire" would likely backfire.
Most people do not run toward conflict. Instead, it's natural to run away from it. As a kid, you learn when you touch a hot stove it is best to back your hand away quickly. In my situation, I figured ignoring the inevitable was the best option. "Time heals all wounds" I told myself at the time, not realizing that this was not about a wound at all.
Disruptive employees cause the wound--and they rarely self-heal. I've seen a few cases where an openly hostile employee makes a turnaround. I also know there are medical issues and emotional upheavals that can arise. But with this employee, the issue was obvious: she wanted my job. After the warnings, there was no option left but to fire her. On the spot. Immediately.
I told my immediate boss, who said I should make it happen that afternoon. I emailed the HR department to let them know what was going on. (I didn't ask for their permission.)
"Well, I have some bad news," I told her. "I have to let you go."
That did not go over too well. She stormed out of my office--and right over to HR. She met with one of the other department heads. Strangely, both of those meetings led to her being allowed to keep working. She eventually pressed the issue in court and won. In fact, she started working as a middle manager at my own level of responsibility.
You can imagine what it was like to meet her in the hallways.
So--short of making this all seem like a riddle, because these events really did happen, how do you think this should have been handled? What's a better way to fire someone?
Since that experience, I've come up with a few ideas. One is that I should have met with HR and explained what was going on. I should have given HR the time they needed to investigate and to communicate with everyone else on the HR team about what was going on. I should have met with the department head that had given her some work on the side. And, most importantly, I should have talked to the legal counsel for the company about potential repercussions.
As a manager, I was more interested in wielding power at times than communicating. Good leadership is about covering your bases. I only covered a few. My team witnessed how poorly I handled the situation and, as a result, started wondering if I had the chops to lead them after botching this situation. Because the employee stayed on, she also kept causing disruption for me for another year--removing her from the team didn't help at all.
But the real killer? I was wrong about her. She excelled in her new job, proved her ability as a middle manager, and continued working there long after I was out the door.
There was a lesson, though. I found that leadership is sometimes about keeping your hand on the stove. It's painful, but that's what makes leadership hard. I was taking the pain for the team. I found that conflict comes up at times in the workplace that requires constant, intentional, and complete attention. I learned that communication is hard but has to be holistic. I learned that leaders can't run from conflict. By focusing on the problem and resolving it, leaders prove why they are in charge in the first place.