What to Do When the Big Fish You Hired Roils Your Startup's Small Pond

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President and CEO at ELI, speaker and author on workplace legal issues
4 min read
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When an is starting a new company, there is great temptation to hire one or more "big shots.'' These are, usually, very talented people who attract attention and investment. That’s all well and good as long as the big shot is a genuine asset to your company.

However, I hear from entrepreneurs all the time who have had to deal with overbearing big shots whose tempers, sense of entitlement and disregard for the company’s principles have done far more harm than good. While larger companies can often survive the bad of a big shot, small start-ups can pay a severe price I know several cases where the work environment became so toxic that the company disbanded.

Related: Is Your Ego Becoming a Liability? 

As a person, you’re used to balancing costs and benefits. So take a look at the big shots in your company (that may even be you). What are the benefits they bring in terms of revenue, credibility, expertise, contacts, investments, etc.?

Now take an honest look at the costs they incur. Is their behavior consistent with the values of your company? Do you have any reason at all to think the big shot is engaging in harassing, threatening, insulting or demeaning behaviors? Don't just pay attention to formal complaints. We all know that people are more likely to hunker down to survive bad managers than speak up to complain.

If you allow big shots to behave contrary to your values, then no one inside or outside your company will believe you mean it. That’s a recipe for failure.

What can you do about a toxic big shot? There are only two acceptable choices in terms of the long-term viability of your company. The person has to change or leave. As the senior leader, it’s your responsibility to enforce those choices. If you aren’t willing to do that, there is little chance of fixing the problem. Any hesitancy increases the big shot’s confidence that they are immune from the rules.

To deal with a toxic big shot:

•    Explain specifically what they are doing that is unacceptable and the impact their conduct has on your company, your employees, your customers and investors.

•    Describe the changes you want to see and the consequences if they fail to do so, with a credible threat of dismissal as the ultimate penalty. (And you know what I mean by credible.)

Related: The Real Cost of Workplace Conflict

If the big shot is willing to change, then take action. Keep in mind that issues that lead to bad behavior are usually easy to understand (don’t lie, don’t insult people, don’t use demeaning language). However, if the bad habits the Big Shot has developed took a long time to develop and can’t easily be broken or replaced by better habits:

•    If training is part of the solution, make sure it is highly individualized and focused on the specific behaviors the big shot engages in and emphasizes the consequences of not changing.

•    Coaching and monitoring should always be part of the equation.

•    Model the desired behaviors.

•    Make sure you have created an environment where employees will come forward with complaints.

•    Gather 360-type feedback from peers and staff to monitor whether the changes have taken root.

It takes time and energy to do this, but those are qualities that entrepreneurs often have in abundance. Still, your best strategy is to to avoid bringing a toxic big shot into your small pond in the first place. Products and services have short lifecycles these days. What will last the longest, if your company survives, is the you are creating. A failure of culture is often a far more critical blow to a startup than the failure of an individual product launch.

Think carefully about the impact of each hire on your environment and culture. Act to enforce behavior standards just as you would any other standards that are critical to your survival as a business. That’s one of the simplest ways to reduce the future risks for your new company.

Related: Rampant Bullying Found Across Workplaces

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