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David’s Leadership Articles

Is Anyone Ever Too Valuable to Fire?

Have you ever worked with an obnoxious colleague who seemed to be protected because the employee was considered too valuable to fire?

Maybe you’re a team leader who has one of these brilliant bullies on your team.

If so, you might not be surprised at what I watched happen at a corporate leadership development program I was facilitating. The HR Director had set out materials on every table – including dishes of candy.

A tall, lanky man entered the room, went straight to the back row, asked the HR Director and his own supervisor if he had to attend the program. When they told him he needed to be there if he wanted to lead a team, he threw a tantrum.

He picked up the dish of candy, threw it against the wall, swept the papers from the table, and unleashed a string of profanity.

In most organizations, that behavior would be a “career limiting move” so I was curious how the HR Director and his supervisor would respond.

They walked away.

I asked the HR Director how she was going to address his behavior.

She replied, “Oh that? That was tame. He’s been far worse, but I’m not allowed to address his behavior. The CEO says he’s too important to lose. He’s really smart and we need him on this project.”

Too Valuable to Fire?

If you’re a leader who tolerates abusive behavior, harassment, or bullying because the employee is smart or talented, you’re making a big mistake.

Think about the messages you’re sending to your team.

First, you’ve told your team that you’re weak. You’re not a strong enough leader to create a positive work environment.

Next, you’ve told your team members that you don’t value them. If you did value them, you would ensure they were treated humanely.

Finally, you’ve told everyone that this kind of abuse, harassment, and bullying is okay. You’ve planted seeds for even more chaos and disruption.

The reality is: no one is too valuable to fire. If you’re doing work that requires a team of people working together, no one brilliant person can do everything themselves.

It’s easy to get caught in a trap when you think you either have to tolerate the bad behavior or else lose the talent. Fortunately, that trap is an illusion. You have powerful leadership tools and choices to make. Here are six leadership strategies to help you deal with an employee who seems like they’re too valuable to fire:

  1. Pick Your Problems

Leaders recognize that they don’t get to chose if they have problems. It’s not “if problems” but “which problems.” The choice is Which set of problems do you want to have? Before you can do anything else, you’ve got to face reality: you have a serious issue here and you’re going to have serious problems.

Which problems do you want? The problems where everyone leaves and the team degenerates into chaos or the problems where you figure out how to address the issues and build a high-performance culture?

  1. What Does Success Look Like?

One of your most important leadership responsibilities is to capture, communicate, and clarify what success looks like for your team. When you’re interviewing, when you’re onboarding, when you’re meeting with your people…consistently reinforce what success looks like. What results will you achieve together? How will you achieve them? How will you work together, treat one another, and build healthy professional relationships?

Clarify what success looks like from the beginning and you’re less likely to hire, much less have to fire, someone for abuse, harassment, and bullying behaviors.

  1. Develop Early

As you work with your people, pay attention to their development from the first day. Use the Competence / Confidence model to quickly give them the feedback they need to grow. Brilliant bullies are often in the upper right quadrant because they aren’t as good as they think they are – they’re undermining their own performance by driving others away.

It is much easier to deal with a behavioral performance issue when you first see it than to address it once it is entrenched.

  1. Ditch the Diaper Drama

One of our favorite Winning Well leadership behaviors is to speak the truth directly, but in a way that builds relationships. Don’t wrap the stink in layers of self-protection (the way that modern diaper pails do) to cover the stink, but don’t solve the problem.

Directly address abuse, harassment, and bullying by describing what you’ve observed. Often, just the act of describing what you saw and heard will help the other person adjust their behavior.

employee too valuable to fire difficult conversation use the INSPIRE Model

click the image to download the INSPIRE Model

I once had a high-value employee yell at me: “I’m tired of you acting like Hitler.” (His report was three weeks overdue and he’d run out of grace period to get it done.) I responded with the “Notice” step from the INSPIRE model: “I noticed that you just called me Hitler. Last I checked, I hadn’t committed any genocide.” Then I followed up with the “Probe” step: “What’s going on?”

When he was calmly confronted with his own behavior, he calmed down and we were able to talk about the real issue and make an agreement that we would never use that kind of language again.

  1. Manage Up – Quickly

If you suspect (or know for certain) that your boss doesn’t want to lose this person, get in front of it. Don’t do anything without their buy-in. You don’t want to have to back-pedal on a major decision and lose credibility. Talk with your boss about the behaviors, the impact on your team, the way it affects performance, and the alternatives they’re willing to accept.

You can also ditch the diaper drama in this conversation: “What level of abuse and harassment are you willing to tolerate for this person’s performance?”

  1. Rally the Team

One of the most awesome examples I’ve ever seen of a manager who had to deal with an employee too valuable to fire was Allan, a senior engineer facing a global product launch. He had a brilliant, but abusive, team member who was a key contributor to the project. The entire team had spoken with him individually about this person. Allan had done everything he could and it was time to terminate.

He spoke with senior vice president who told him: “I won’t stand in your way if you want to let this guy go, but this is totally your call. You are still responsible for getting the product launch done on time. It that doesn’t happen, it will likely mean your job.”

Allan chose to terminate the problem employee’s employment and then met with his team. “That employee is no longer with us,” he told them. “We still have to meet our deadline. I believe in us and I know we can do it, but without him, it’s not going to be easy. How can we do it?”

The team was grateful, energized, and innovative in coming up with ways they could meet their deadline. Productivity soared.

“It was a major gut check,” Allan shared with me, “I was worried about my own job, but I’m so glad I made the decision I did. I chose to believe in my team – and I’m glad I did.”

Your Turn

too valuable to fire and other tools in winning well bookYou might be wondering what happened to the company where I met the candy-thrower.

I explained to the executive team that if they didn’t confront this man’s behavior, they should stop wasting money on leadership development (because your behavior tells your people that you don’t actually value leadership), should spend the money on recruiting (because no one will stick around to deal with that every day), and prepare to miss their next product development deadlines (because the caustic atmosphere was killing everyone else’s productivity).

Leave us a comment and share your best practices when confronted with an employee who seems as if they’re too valuable to fire.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

10 Comments

  1. Debora

    I would love to see some of the comments from your readers. Can you share?

    Reply
    • David Dye

      Hi Debora,

      Great discussions – love to hear your thoughts!

      Reply
  2. Anita Prather Harvell

    There are many alarming items in this article, least of all is the clear indication that HR is not the friend of the rank-and-file employee for allowing this to occur, especially if someone could be physically injured. Having someone too “valuable to fire” also indicates a managerial and succession management issue as well, so the supervisor is probably reluctant to look in the mirror.

    In these cases, we’ve asked the manager to reassess their team’s skills – they may find that indispensable employee really isn’t and there are others on the team who would step up if they had a less toxic work environment. I would suspect the team is succeeding despite this employee, not because of him.

    Your parting shots were direct, focused, and right on.

    Reply
    • David Dye

      Very well said, Anita. Love your final comment: that these teams likely succeed despite, not because of these folks. I also believe that most people with this level of dysfunction in an organization have been cultivated to behave that way. Thanks for your contribution!

      Reply
  3. Erna de Lange

    In the education field in SA the unions make this kind of action very difficult for leaders. Principals, as leaders, have very little say in appointments, and are expected to both lead and manage a very diverse team. “Bullies” normally comprise very lazy teachers who find every excuse in the book not to be at school. The principal cannot fire, or threaten to fire the Bully without having extensive egg on his/her face. Diaper Drama is prevalent, and principals are accused of racial discrimination when the behavior is addressed.
    I concur with the thought of addressing the behavior immediately. This is what I recommend to the group of principals I mentor. While in our case the obnoxious employee cannot be summarily fired, it somehow stops the Bully in his tracks, and get him/her to reflect on what has just happened. The big trick: be calm when you address the Bumptious Bully.

    Reply
    • David Dye

      Erna,
      Thanks for sharing your insights! The scenarios you described exist in many different environments and it can be so frustrating to struggle with them. Often they are the product of years of mistrust and broken relationships. You’re spot on with regard to addressing these behaviors quickly and calmly. Often, no one has done so before and it sets the tone for the team when you do. When you can pair this with a leadership focus on a strong purpose – in this case, the children whose future and lives are in your hands, change becomes possible. Thank you for your leadership and for making a difference!

      Reply
  4. Trish

    HR & Mgmt may also learn from the bully’s unacceptable fit. Many attending the course more than likely feel the same way about ‘having’ to take yet another pointless mgmt. course yet will never admit it. Courses like these are a waste of time & money because few if any will apply it back on the job.

    Reply
    • David Dye

      Hi Trish,

      There are certainly always lessons to be learned in both directions. And yes – executives would do well to not waste people’s time with development efforts they have no intention of supporting. That said, we are committed to practical “use it now” leadership development that actually makes a real-world difference for the leaders who attend – and consistently receive that feedback and see the results from the people we work with.

      I’m also a consultant who has frequently told executives that I am not willing to waste people’s time or money on anything less than application and behavior change that achieve breakthrough business results, I agree that it is better not to “waste people’s time” unless you’re committed to the work. No one needs a pointless management course – they do more harm than good.

      In the case of the individual in the story I shared, the organization had undertaken a year-long program specifically to create a more human-centered, results-oriented leadership culture at every level of the organization and had included their executive leadership team in the process. This individual was certainly not a fit to be leading people – and probably not in the organization at all. His behavior helped them to grasp what it would take for them to truly transform their culture.

      Thanks for your contribution!

      Reply
  5. Stephanie Doss

    I would be curious to hear how some have gone about getting the leader to have the courage to address the situation. As an HR professional, I absolutely agree with this article. And while the manager would probably agree as well, it’s sometimes a big leap from that to actually realizing that action is needed.

    Reply
    • David Dye

      Hi Stephanie,

      Great question – would be great to hear from others. How do you help your leaders have the courage to address these situations?

      In my own leadership career and in the work we do with thousands of managers around the world, we find that this type of courage is a muscle. It gets stronger with use. Ideally, managers are trained and provided with straightforward tools to have the conversations effectively. (eg our INSPIRE method or 9 Whats Coaching Model). Then, they need experience having the conversations at the early stages, before the situations become extreme. An even better answer is to give aspiring managers the tools and opportunities to hold these kinds of conversations before they’re given responsibility for other people.

      In the instance of a manager who hasn’t had the benefit of this training and practice, it can help to role play and practice the conversations with a supportive HR professional or like-minded colleague. Also, securing the support of the manager’s supervisor first can help. Generally, the fear managers have is worse than the reality of the conversation once they do it. In fact, it’s often much easier and the rewards so great that they wonder why they ever waited so long.

      Thanks for the question!

      Reply

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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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