What do you do when your most valued person is also a problem?

Almost every business leader has had to deal with removing a toxic employee, quite often waiting too long to make that change. I’m not talking about the person for which a replacement is generally available, but the trusted manager, skilled technical team leader, or superstar salesperson. They have agency, autonomy and an audience inside or outside your organization. What do you do when your most valued person is also a problem?

Unfortunately, these people get to these positions because they bring immense value. If they were a one-dimensional villain, they would be gone before they had impact. Toxic employees have influence and power because they have succeeded in their career and your culture. Whether they are as good as perceived (they aren’t), they understood the brief. They did what was needed to get to a position where they could flex, holding you hostage. Or that’s the feeling, anyway.

My first experience with this was when I inherited the No. 2 person that had been with the company for 30 years. He was incredibly charming, skilled, knew the clients, had vast amounts of institutional knowledge and, in many ways, was the face of the organization. By the time he was at his peak awfulness, it was hard to know how to replace him. He was the definition of indispensable.

He was a bully, tantrum thrower, and saboteur of ideas and initiatives. He had to go. I knew that was the only answer, but the fear of losing this indispensable person meant finding another solution. Could we contain him? Maybe a suspension the next time an incident happens? How bad is it really? These negotiating arguments delayed the inevitable, allowing more damage. Waiting (coping?) isn’t a winning strategy.

I don’t recall the final incident, but it was predictable. Firing him made things more challenging — he was key for a reason. But the real regret was not acting faster, and the difficulty replacing him was nothing compared to working with him.

Here is what every person in leadership needs to know.

  1. No matter how ‘bad’ you think it is, it’s worse. If your toxic employee is in a position of authority, they are being protected by their title or proximity to whomever is in control. You won’t get the full story until it’s over.
  2. Information hoarding is toxic. If someone hoards information or resists transparency for ‘job security, it is leverage, and that’s a threat.
  3. Toxic behavior when unchecked and permitted, equals lost productivity, higher turnover and declining respect. The longer it goes, the worse it gets.
  4. The employee is never as good as they say, or as good as you think. Toxic people aren’t toxic selectively, they are toxic everywhere. Folks with limited exposure, like your clients, will eventually get a feel for it too.
  5. Key people don’t require continual management or attention. If you find yourself protecting instead of delegating, you know their colleagues’ experience is worse.
  6. If you keep poisonous people as a financial benefit, you are communicating that your values are negotiable.
  7. It’s not going away or getting better. This isn’t a lack of understanding; it is an attempted coup. Act accordingly.

An early mentor taught me that I wasn’t just the captain of the ship, I was its steward. As steward, I had to maintain the integrity of the entire endeavor and do what is required to be a strong and healthy organization. As both captain and steward, there is only one thing to do if someone is impeding or altering your journey: You throw them overboard. ●

Jennifer Ake-Marriott is President & CEO of Redmond Waltz

Jennifer Ake-Marriott

President and CEO


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