Q: We own a computer software company, and like most other businesses, we're finding there's a shortage of talented people in the labor market. As a result, we have two or three problem employees we should fire, but we're afraid we won't be able to find replacements. What advice do you have?
A: If you'd terminate these employees under normal circumstances, you should terminate them under "abnormal circumstances." Most organizations in your situation make the wrong decision when it comes to terminating employees who exhibit problem behavior. They're afraid they'll lose business resulting from decreased sales and reduced productivity and quality.
However, employers don't always add up the "hidden costs" of keeping problem workers. There are probably more complaints from employees about the way management handles these kinds of workers than any other. When employees see bad behavior or poor performance being rewarded (in this case, just being kept on the payroll), they lose confidence in management, which has a depressing effect on quality, productivity and morale throughout the company. In my opinion, the negatives of keeping problem employees far outweigh the positives.
Having said that, however, there are two other things to consider. The first is that such an employee doesn't develop problems overnight. It's most often the case that he or she has been getting reinforcement at work for his or her behavior. Try to determine where it's coming from and stop it. It could be that the person is rude, verbally abusive or otherwise difficult to work with, and the reinforcement is that he or she gets away with it. In other words, there are no negative consequences for the poor behavior and the positive consequences are that he or she gets his way. I have known salespeople who have high sales but are never on time with the administrative aspects of the job, or when they do them, they're incomplete or inaccurate. Because they're high performers, this is overlooked and management often goes as far as making excuses to others for their poor behavior. What many people don't realize, however, is that frequently when a problem person leaves a job, the new person actually does better than the hotshot who left.
For example, I know of one manager who was in charge of street sales for a large metropolitan newspaper. He was a tyrant in his job. When his management style was brought to the attention of his boss as a problem by our consultant, he was told that the man was a legend in the industry. He gave seminars on street sales at annual newspaper conventions. He was so devoted to his job that he had lost his family. The newspaper didn't want to fire him so he remained in his position for another year before his behavior became such that he was finally transferred. Street sales almost immediately went up more than 20 percent. This is not an uncommon result.
The second thing to consider is to try to change the problem employee's behavior. Even the most seemingly recalcitrant behavior can be changed, but only if you're skilled in behavior change and are willing to devote the time to do it. You must make sure you don't inadvertently reinforce poor behavior or performance and that you positively reinforce even small improvements in your problem employees' behavior.
Whatever you do, address the problem quickly. The longer you wait to take action, the higher the ultimate cost and the more it will escalate with each passing day.
Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit www.aubreydaniels.com, or contact at (800) 223-6191.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.