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Taming a temperamental superstar employee Add to ...

When Wayne McHale was a senior executive with a large international manufacturing firm, he heard reports that staff in one of the branch offices was fed up with the arrogant and condescending attitude of a hotshot new manager.

Mr. McHale decided to nip the situation in the bud and flew out to have a confidential chat with the manager, a high performer the firm had recently hired away from a competitor.

"I made it absolutely clear that while we were delighted to have him on the team, certain behaviours could not be tolerated in a team environment," says Mr. McHale, who is now president of management consultancy McHale & Associates in Dundas, Ont. "He was taken aback, initially, because I think the behaviours were somewhat ingrained. He was a star and had been told for too long that he was wonderful."

Temper tantrums, sexist remarks, chronic lateness, information hoarding, playing favourites … people don't always behave themselves at work. But what's an organization to do when the bad behaviour is coming from a "superstar" who has a special talent, or technical capability, or who is raking in the sales, especially during a poor economy?

Some organizations actually nurture bad behaviour, according to Lew Bayer, president and CEO of Civility Experts Worldwide, a workplace consultancy in Winnipeg. For example, certain rules may not apply to someone who has formed a friendship or close relationship with a senior manager. Or a person's behaviour is tolerated because a manager decides it's too costly or too much hassle to seek a replacement.

Sometimes it's the boss who's the problem.

"I worked with this high level group of C-suite people who were screaming and swearing at each other. No one in the organization wanted to move up to this level because they weren't comfortable with that environment," says Marni Johnson, president of Workplace Communication & Diversity Inc. in Toronto. She is also a workshop instructor for the Human Resources Professionals Association. "The managers had created a mini-culture of almost abusive behaviour that they had all become comfortable with."

Senior management may be reluctant to rock the boat with a high performer because they've come to rely on that person's knowledge, talent, or ability to generate business. Mr. McHale says there is "always a bit of a power play going on in these situations," but that's why success ultimately depends on senior managers who live by standards and who aren't afraid to make immediate and difficult decisions - even if it means cutting the star from the team.

"You can't avoid dealing with performance issues. There is no escape. In the long term, it will come back to haunt you," Mr. McHale says.

Ignoring or glossing over a situation can make things worse. A disruptive individual can affect co-workers' personal health, productivity, communication, co-operation, creativity and quality of service. "You see a revolving door around that individual. Most people join a company for the company, but they leave because of the boss," Ms. Johnson says.

Too many just keep their mouths shut and are stressed and miserable all day long, she adds. "I'm amazed by the number of people I talk to who are taking anti-depressants."

When it comes to the hijinks of a high performer, where you draw the line usually comes down to the bottom line.

Ms. Bayer advises clients to attach a dollar value to every minute spent managing the repercussions of one person's actions. And everything counts - from the 15 minutes a co-worker spends crying because she was verbally abused, to the time spent placating an offended client, to the number of sick days taken by people who are bullied by their supervisor.

"When you tally it all up, it becomes glaringly obvious that the costs far outweigh whatever production benefit there is to this individual," Ms. Bayer says. "The minute one person's personal choices impact the business priority … that's where to draw the line."

In June, Ontario got tougher on workplace violence and harassment with new legislation. Bill 168 defines workplace violence as actual or threatened physical force, while harassment includes "vexatious" comments or conduct such as bullying, intimidating or offensive jokes or innuendos, displaying or circulating offensive pictures or materials, and offensive or intimidating phone calls.

"If you don't investigate and the situation escalates, you could become what's termed 'vicariously liable,'" Ms. Johnson says.

Unfortunately, organizations typically wait until a situation reaches a crisis point before calling in help. Dave Hagel, principal of High Performance Human Resources in Burlington, Ont., says he sometimes feels like Winston Wolf, the character in the film Pulp Fiction who specialized in cleaning up messes.

"I always tell my clients I don't want to be Mr. Wolf. I want to be more pro-active and come in at the beginning," he says. "Some of those cases we can salvage, and some we can't if it's too far gone. If the problem is too advanced and too complicated to resolve, the only way is to get rid of the employee."

If the star performer is worth keeping, coaching can help. But only if he or she is open to the idea, Ms. Johnson adds. "One of the first things I say is 'Let's not look at this as a punitive type of activity. This organization is investing in you and it's a great opportunity for development.' It's an easier pill to swallow if we talk about it in terms of leadership."

Five behavioural red flags

  • Consistently ignoring company guidelines
  • Disrespecting other people by always showing up late
  • Failing to keep certain team members in the loop
  • Failing to treat others with dignity or respect
  • Threatening or carrying out physical violence or verbal abuse

Sources: Wayne McHale, Lew Bayer; Dave Hagel; Marni Johnson

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