Don’t just fire that “toxic” employee

A senior board colleague shared an article yesterday about why leaders should make the decision, however hard, to fire a toxic employee no matter how productive his sales performance. Such “toxic” employees undermine a company’s culture and leaders tolerating them demotivate others. It is worse when the “toxic” employee is in and retains a senior position, which may signal legitimacy for unacceptable behaviours to the wider organisation.

The recommendation and the reasoning cannot be faulted. But leadership is nothing if not a constant journey in learning and fine-tuning the praxis. Firing an employee of any seniority is an “end of pipe” fix. Every such “end of pipe” fix is an opportunity to examine if the “beginning of pipe” is working well and whether the “pipe” itself could do with improvements.

The “beginning of pipe” here would be leaders reflecting on their own judgment in hiring such an employee in the first place. The reflection would help examine the factors influencing the hiring process and whether corrective action has been or is being taken to minimise the impact of poor hiring decisions.

Having said that, i should clarify that I do not believe in labelling people as “toxic”. It is an oddly static label. People are fluid, changeable, malleable entities, who grow slowly or rapidly, perform well or badly, lead people or remain individual contributors during different phases of life, given different organisational contexts. Toxic behaviours from people is a “dose-response” phenomenon. Leaders should equally consider the company culture they preside over and the behaviours their company culture is fostering, encouraging, accepting, rewarding. This is the “pipe” I refer to earlier.

Not considering the entire talent ecosystem in the company is a kind of leadership myopia. It does not bode well for an organisation, save for the inertia that can often keep things chugging along.

The evaluation — both by the hiring organisation and the candidate — at the interview and all subsequent interactions is a crucial checkpoint.

If we are to use the word “toxic” after all, that would be down to personality traits that would be unpleasant in any context but especially the context of a given organisation. How to identify these traits?

A candidate, especially for a senior role, needs to be able to sell his or her ideas and co-opt others on the long strategic ride. Referencing past achievements as “my” not “our” is a notable sign of deficiency here. A candidate who does not do in-depth home work on the hiring company suggests a tendency to wing it and hints at an unsavoury lack of ethics and depth which cannot possibly benefit any organisation. I am also wary of candidates who deflect tough questions about past failures and difficult experiences; it suggests an inability to reflect and/ or lack of resilience and humility to learn from or move on from difficulties. Further if someone plays the blame game in response to such questions, it is a quite instructive on its own.

While some interviewers are put off by a candidate who asks too many questions, the real issue is a candidate who has no questions at all. How do you gauge their real interest in the role?

The most tricky one I have encountered is when a candidate idolises a public figure or a past boss beyond reasonable levels. What is unreasonable? Well, like vulgarity, you will know when you see it. When the candidate starts sounding like a swooning fan whether they do or do not know a person, it shows lack of critical judgement and too much raw desire to emulate/ copy rather than think independently for the organisational context.

And then there is the due diligence. For fear of litigation, many referees now say bland things about a candidate. Leaders, who are serious about hiring well, go a step further in their reference checks. For instance, they ask for references from not just work contexts but outside work contexts e.g. volunteering, local football club coaching. The more senior the hire, the more thorough these checks need to be.

The tougher part however is examining the “pipe” itself. Leaders often do not do a good job of a critical examination here.

An alert candidate can identify some signals of poor leadership and culture during the hiring process. Some of these are easy to see. An unclear vision of what the role is contributing towards is the biggest red flag of all. The more senior place this lack of clarity comes from, the more clear the signalling is about lack of focus and values in an organisation. Potential senior hires often get to meet other senior execs and board directors in the hiring process. The conversations can be revealing of the challenges as seen by the various individuals, and if they do not align, that is a potential problem ahead too. Any senior execs or board directors openly criticising the leadership in front of a candidate, who has not yet signed up to the job, is a massive flashing sign.

How should leaders review the “pipe”?

Central to it all is the culture of accountability.

Do senior leaders embody a model of accountability?

How do leaders hold themselves accountable to the team and how do they hold the team accountable?

How do leaders deal with bad behaviours that create a culture of mistrust e.g. people ignoring process, disrespecting other colleagues, trying to break the law, fudging expense claims, and generally not keeping up their part of the bargain with the organisation at large? Do leaders confront it and call it out? Do they ignore it? Do they implicitly “reward” such behaviours through your silence and avoidance?

(These things are not easy for a candidate to probe and are only found out once one is inside an organisation.)

Yes, it is easy to label an employee “toxic” and get rid of him or her. But an honest leader would reflect on the role the organisation played in allowing such toxicity to take hold and fester.

Every employee that is labelled as “toxic” is a giant mirror held to the organisation’s culture and the leadership’s relationship with accountability.

Next time, as a leader, don’t just fire the “toxic” employee.

Stop, reflect, examine the role your leadership and your organisation played in fostering that toxicity.

Fix what is in your power.

Fix your own organisation, its culture.

Fix yourself.

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