business advice | Aug 22, 2023 |
When is it time to stop investing in a challenging employee and just start fresh?

Dear Sean,

I read BOH’s recent feature about how a challenging employee can hurt a firm, and about the painful decision to let that team member go and the growth that can come on the other side. I appreciated the designer’s experience, but I was left with a lingering question: How should you decide when it’s no longer worth it to continue investing in an employee’s training and development, and that starting fresh is the better bet? Are there specific metrics to consider, or factors to keep in mind?

On the Fence

Dear On the Fence,

There are so many layers to this question, which, at base, is about when to fish or cut bait. For most leaders, the decision comes upon realizing that this employee is not cutting it and has to be replaced with someone else. The problem with that thought process is that it is about evaluating the employee first and you, the employer, second. That’s fundamentally backward.

The first step in building a successful company and team is always to look at yourself and your firm first. What is the culture you want? My personal preference is to build an entrepreneurial environment where everyone’s voice is vital to the success of the team. I believe in creating a deeply passionate team that is nurturing and giving to themselves first, and then to those around them. I do not believe in toxic environments that support overwork and martyrdom as a path to success. Instead, I believe that you give everything while you are at work, then you go invest in other areas of your life that are equally important.

I came to this philosophy the hard way. I grew up in an age when you were required to sacrifice everything for the sake of the business, and if you did not, you were shunned. When I was a young lawyer, one of the firm’s partners dropped dead of a heart attack while running on a Sunday morning. He was in his early 40s, with a wife and two small children left behind. Not a single lawyer in his department went to the funeral or offered in-person condolences as we were in the midst of a huge transaction. Secretaries sent flowers and made donations to charities, then called it a day. I continued working in those environments for more time than I should have, and it took me a very long time to realize that work matters—but life matters more.

What does my story have to do with the answer to your question? Company culture starts with you, the firm’s leader. If you judge an employee who is a superstar diva or a mail-it-in disgruntled one as being toxic, please know that they are the symptom, not the disease. Whenever you’re dealing with a troublesome employee, start with a look in the mirror. Are you crystal clear to your staff about what success looks like at your firm? No judgment if you want your culture to look like my old law firm’s—just own it. And if you do not, what are you going to do to fix it?

Only with culture firmly in hand can you turn to the employee and judge them against that culture. More often than not, you will find that they are the outliers dragging down other members who fully embrace your culture. Ask yourself if you are willing to lose those employee(s). If the answer is yes, then you absolutely have your answer: time to cut bait. If the answer is maybe or no, then you have far more work to do, since this dynamic reveals that you are the issue, not your team. Your lack of clarity has created chaos and a muddled culture where no one knows which end is up.

I have seen this over and over with small (read: micro) companies. The leader (that’s you!) is a force of nature, but also a martyr. Perhaps they grew up in cultures like mine and fundamentally believe no one will ever care about the firm like they do, and that everyone exists to do their bidding in one form or another. This represents a factory model at its most toxic level, with trickle-down bullying, shaming and cajoling. These leaders usually imagine themselves to be kind and fair, just demanding. It is always the “awful” employee who winds up being the scapegoat. Yes, sometimes the employee is a train wreck of their own making, but most often they were shaped or driven into the train wreck they became.

We are all works in progress. If you find yourself shifting and desiring a different culture than the one that exists at your company, make the change first. Forgive yourself by owning what once was that you no longer espouse. Be relentless in the effort, because change sucks. Give everyone an opportunity to embrace what might not have been clear, but be ruthless for those who choose not to believe in your right to change and/or clarify. Those who believe themselves above or distinct from the culture are toxic. Given the chance, toxic employees take everyone down with them. The thing about doing the work first is that you will know that you cannot ever let that happen and will act accordingly.

Homepage image: ©Jozefmicic/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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