As a leader, I've been consistently awe-struck by how damaging one bad employee can be. Every leader I've ever met has a secret name for these employees: "bad apple", "black hole", "cancerous". These people have an insidious and disproportionately negative impact on an organisation, but getting rid of them is not easy. The best way to avoid bad employees is a tough screening process. Best practices include multiple interviews, diligent reference and background checks, group decision making, and comparing multiple applicants for every job. I think that having probation periods for key positions is a good idea. After a set time, everyone - the organisation and the employee - can re-evaluate.
If you think you might have made a mistake in hiring, you probably have. Don't question your intuition - you'll just lose time, money and probably end up with a lawsuit. Hiring mistakes need to be dealt with immediately. I've experienced the pain of waiting too long to deal with a problem employee because there always seemed to be a reason to wait. But the opportunity cost, especially for key positions in small companies, can be astronomically high.
If you run an organisation or take over one, then your immediate and regular task is to look for employees gone bad. They're usually easily identified if you actively look for them. The process of culling them while keeping the organisation running takes a lot of discipline over many months. It's hard work to maintain fairness while avoiding poor morale and lawsuits. But you'll soon be able to measure your success by the increase in job satisfaction and productivity of your other employees. They'll take great heart from seeing your courage to deal with a problem they've had to live with every day.
So even though it might not fit your image of yourself as a leader, develop that green thumb. You won't regret it, as over the space of a few years your organisation begins to take on the shape of a well-tended garden. And you'll find other people recognising your efforts and wanting to take a look and even stay awhile.
Christopher Hoenig has been an entrepreneur (CEO of Exolve), consultant (McKinsey & Company) and inventor, and is the author of The Problem Solving Journey: Your Guide to Making Decisions and Getting Results (Perseus Publishing, 2000). He is now director of strategic issues for the US General Accounting Office
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