What to Do When Your Company Is Being Held 'Hostage' By a Toxic Employee
Employees are the lifeblood of the organization. Your employees are your organization. Employees build the organization, run the organization and drive your organization’s success. But, employees can also take down the organization. In fact, you may be facing an organizational crisis right now, without even realizing it.
Organizational hostage situations are easy to spot -- unless you’re in the middle of one. These situations occur when the organization (company) is “held” until the hostage-takers’ (employees’) demands are met. Sometimes, this is a blatant seize, with explicit demands. At other times, it’s much subtler. Regardless, it’s a dangerous spot.
Take, for example, the company that tolerates the abrasive behavior of a salesperson because “he is the only one making his numbers.” Or the new team leader that leaves a wake of employee disengagement in her path, but keeps her position because “she is the only one who knows the software system.”
If you find yourself unable to make necessary moves because you are constrained by an employee or employees, you’re in an organizational hostage situation. An organization can be taken hostage in a number of different ways.
Here are three common situations and how to fix them:
You may be taken hostage by a single employee, or by a group of employees, that has critical knowledge that doesn’t exist beyond that core. It could be as basic as an employee that you rely on as the single individual who knows how to run the phone system. It could also be as critical as the group of three technology employees who wrote every line of code for your latest product release. If these individuals were to leave the company, you wouldn’t make it far. You’ve left yourself vulnerable.
To fix this situation, you need to find ways to distribute this knowledge beyond the core.
Would any of your key client, patient, financial, or customer relationships be put in jeopardy if one or more individuals were to leave your organization or make demands you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) meet? If so, you have a relationship hostage situation. Relationship hostages are organizations that rely so heavily on a single employee, or a small group of employees, that customers would take their business elsewhere if these connections were severed. While employee relationships are one of the key reasons customers choose to do business with you, you are in a dangerous situation if that relationship is the single strong tie between customer and company.
A month or so, I met with a senior leader I am coaching. She started the conversation with, “I’m going to let (department manager) go, but can’t do it until I have someone to replace him.” This senior leader had no bench strength or backup. While the failing department manager was tanking morale and, even more noticeable, putting out defective product, the senior leader was being held hostage, forced to tolerate bad behavior and poor performance because there was no potential successor in place.
Hostage crises multiply. If hostage-taking is the norm for your team, others learn from your tolerance of these situations, and create similar situations for themselves. Sometimes, it’s a matter of self-preservation (i.e. “I need to somehow make myself indispensable”). Sometimes it’s a result of basic human nature -- we want to be needed, so we create this need. Other, it’s simply conforming to the culture of the organization. We learn by example.
Once you are knee deep in a hostage situation, it’s obviously too late to prevent it. Unfortunately, even though one party may come out better than another, it’s not going to end well for either party involved. But, something has to be done, and it may not be easy. It has to be resolved, hopefully with as few casualties as possible.
The most critical part of organizational hostage situations is to never get there in the first place. There are ways to recognize when you’re about to be taken hostage:
They tell you. “They” could be the employee openly declaring himself “indispensable.” (They will usually show their hand if they think this way). “They” could be your customer letting you know they will only work with a certain employee. Watch for the signs. They’ll be there.
You’ve seen damage. There are places within your organization where you already know you are vulnerable. You’ve already run into problems because of it. If not, you’ve probably kept your fingers crossed that you’d never have to deal with it. If you already know that a loss or a change would devastate your organization, it’s time to build in some backup before you’re forced into a negotiation that won’t end well.
You are delaying or avoiding critical actions. If you find your organization (or yourself) not moving forward or acting on critical initiatives because of employee-related issues, consider yourself a hostage. Keep in mind that, eventually, most hostage-takers will exit the situation. So, many times, all you are doing in not taking action is postponing an inevitable change and delaying what needs to be done operationally. Meanwhile, the casualties are piling up.
No hostage situation goes on forever. Someone will eventually make a move. But whose terms will it be under, and what damage will be done while you’re figuring it out? Your organization will be in much better shape if you see the clues and take deliberate action to diffuse or avoid the situation all together.