No matter how great your company culture is, there's going to come a time when you find yourself swept up in the drama of a problem employee. You know who I'm talking about. This person complains about everything, divides your employees, and plays political games.

Not every complainer is wrong, of course. Sometimes, there's a great nugget of truth to be gleaned from conflict. Other times, these are truly toxic individuals who just spread negativity within your organization and damage morale.

As an entrepreneur, it's your job to learn the difference between an employee who likes to grumble and a bad seed. Are the employee's complaints focused on organizational issues or personal gripes? Is he offering solutions or going behind your back? Your answers to these questions can often mean the difference between someone who has the organization's best interests at heart and someone who doesn't.

If it's the latter, you may find yourself lying awake at night wondering what to do. To minimize the worrying and ensure you're making the right choice, follow these five steps before firing a problem employee:

1. Set Time to Talk

When you discover an employee engaging in office politics, take the time to talk it out. Invite the employee out to lunch, or have a quick aside in a private office. Be honest, and explain what you've observed or overheard. The key point here is to start the conversation and truly listen to what your employee has to say. Talking without hearing all sides of the story can lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary confrontation.

2. Create an Action Plan

End your meeting or discussion with a plan on how to make things better. You're both invested in the company, so find a solution that benefits the business and the parties involved. Plan to meet again in a month or two to see how things have progressed.

3. Take Corrective Action

Firing any employee--especially a top performer--should always be the last resort. That person's livelihood and his family's quality of life are at stake. That's why it's important to address the situation that's being described, not the situation that exists currently.

Take corrective action to prevent this problem from happening to another employee, whether that means removing a certain privilege or creating new employee guidelines. For one thing, it's a good idea to implement a no-politics policy and work on creating more transparency in your organization. At my company, we've implemented an anonymous management review and a 360-degree employee review process. There are no taboo questions and no reasons to hide anything.

4. Regroup

Follow through on your promise to meet again. Did your plan work? Did everyone do his part to make positive changes? This is probably the most telling point in an employee/employer relationship. If the individual in question hasn't made significant progress, he probably isn't a long-term fit for your company.

5. Take Time to Reflect

If your employee didn't live up to his end of the bargain, give yourself some time to think about your next step. If this person weren't in your company, would this problem have surfaced regardless? Is it really this person's fault? Are you ready to fire him? Reflecting on these questions can help you pinpoint areas where you may share responsibility for the situation and reveal whether you should keep the employee at your company.

I'm a big believer in second chances and always hope to make things work. A little negativity or office politicking doesn't always warrant termination, but as a leader, it's your responsibility to have the difficult conversations and make the necessary decisions to maintain a healthy and productive environment for your employees.

Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but don't be afraid to fire a toxic individual for the good of your company.

Published on: Feb 9, 2015