Hiring

4 Lessons We Can Learn From the High-Profile Firings at Disney

Knowing how to handle a toxic personality is important, but it's even better to avoid hiring the wrong person in the first place.
4 Lessons We Can Learn From the High-Profile Firings at Disney
Image credit: Adam Rose | ABC | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Records-Johnston Professor of Free Enterprise in the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

These days, The Walt Disney Co. has a relatively stellar reputation. Its movies are ridiculously popular, and its image has become increasingly squeaky-clean over the years. In many ways, Disney has come the closest of almost any company you could name to accomplishing the impossible: pleasing all of the people all of the time.

Over the past year, however, the House of Mouse’s pristine image has absorbed a few dings and dents. Most recently, the company dealt with roaring controversies surrounding two personalities: comedian Roseanne Barr and director James Gunn.

Related: Six Fundamental Business Lessons Every Entrepreneur Can Learn From Walt Disney

Both situations involved offensive tweets, though the context and content of those tweets were vastly different. While Barr landed in hot water for sending out racist and outlandish tweets, Gunn made headlines after some rather questionable tweets -- including jokes about pedophilia and rape -- that surfaced from about a decade ago.

Regardless of the circumstances, both celebrities met a swift response from Disney: immediate termination of their contracts with the company. In this way, Disney sent a clear and consistent message to its employees: that any negative attention from potential customers would result in the loss of a job.

Interestingly, the company didn’t base its firing decisions on any skittishness about money -- the ratings for Roseanne probably still would have been fine, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 undoubtedly would have still made oodles of money at the box office. Instead, the firings were fueled by risk management, with the company attempting to shift the focus off online outrage so it could proceed with business as usual.

As a public company with a family friendly reputation it holds near and dear, Disney finds itself in an incredibly difficult position when it comes to hiring. In addition to worrying about whether someone can do the job he or she has been hired to do, the company must also consider whether that person has the potential to upset the public with past or present behavior.

In the age of social media, a vocal minority is enough to create a major headache for any company.

One wrong personality can result in big risk.

No employer hires someone's complete personality. The company hires someone who has the skills for the job in question. Barr was hired for the role she plays on television rather than for her political opinions or the content she posts on Twitter. Our personal and professional lives aren’t mutually exclusive, but sometimes the two simply don’t get along.

While most companies hopefully won’t have to handle armies of strangers dredging up old tweets, they will eventually have to contend with toxic personalities in the workplace. One bad hire can become a drain on the entire team’s energy, negatively affecting the performance of the organization. 

While knowing how to handle a toxic personality is an important part of risk management, it’s even better to avoid hiring the wrong person in the first place. This might sound easier said than done, but there are several ways organizations can navigate the hiring process without falling victim to the same pitfalls Disney did.

1. Codify and share the organization’s goals.

This should go without saying, but many companies seem to struggle when it comes to voicing clear rules for conduct and organizational goals. If there is no agreement or strong management, there is no way to solve disagreements or differing interpretations. Then, when a toxic personality comes into the mix, it can create a disastrous state of affairs.

CBS recently learned this lesson the hard way, succumbing to infighting and legal battles between corporate leaders and Shari Redstone, its controlling shareholder, over the direction of the company. Because there was no contingency plan or clear set of goals to guide the company, the next move for CBS is completely up in the air.

2. Formalize a chain of command.

At the very least, an organization should establish clear boundaries of responsibility. If there are no formal goals for each role, it’s impossible to evaluate the performance of any team member. That, in itself, is enough to cause conflict.

This type of delineation in a company can be difficult in the startup world, where most people wear a variety of hats. Even if it isn't possible to clearly state who is responsible for each task, it’s still possible -- and necessary -- to appoint an arbiter who can make decisions that end conflicts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is a common solution for a variety of companies -- there are an estimated 7,800 arbitrators or mediators in the United States performing these tasks.

3. Hire for attitude; train for skill.

For new startups, sometimes one rotten apple truly can spoil the whole bunch. Because there are usually only a handful of employees in a variety of roles, a toxic individual has the opportunity to gum up the works of an otherwise functional team.

When hiring someone for a startup role, the hiring executive must take great care to ensure that each personality meshes well with other team members'. Skills can be taught, but mutual respect needs to be there from the start. This goes beyond startups, though. Daniel Schwartz, the CEO of Restaurant Brands International (which owns Burger King and Tim Horton’s), considers attitude when it comes to hiring, according to the New York Times. Bring in people who are willing to work hard and to leave their egos at the door.

Related: Why You Need to Avoid Hiring That Potentially Toxic Rockstar

4. Outsource tasks calling for specific expertise.

Despite such precautions, hiring is a huge risk for any startup because personality fit is not always apparent at the outset. Labor contracts are often difficult or costly to set up -- and just as difficult to cancel. As a result, a toxic personality becomes an anchor that is difficult to cut loose.

A contract with an external supplier, however, can be renegotiated, canceled and even revoked -- at a much lower cost. This makes a startup more flexible and helps it avoid the risk of toxicity. Entrepreneurs overestimate the benefits of in-house employees, not noticing that they're better off delaying hiring full-time employees for as long as possible.

Deloitte’s Global Outsourcing Survey tells the same story: 78 percent of respondents said they were happy with their decisions to outsource tasks. The top reasons for outsourcing in the first place? Cutting costs, solving capacity issues and staying focused on the core business. Outsourcing allows a startup to stay nimble, and it eliminates the potential for a newcomer to ruin your organizational morale.

Related: 7 Things to Outsource Immediately to Scale Your Business

In many ways, hiring has become a minefield: It’s impossible for companies to anticipate every single personality clash or PR nightmare. But by using these techniques -- and hiring only when it’s absolutely necessary -- your company can avoid major internal dramas akin to the public firestorms Disney has weathered.

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