To Fire or Not to Fire a Problem Employee

He's brought your company to success, but he's making everyone around him miserable. What are your options?

Q: I recently bought my partner out, but he is still with the company. He is very highly skilled in an area of the company that is critical to our success. He is probably the best in the country at what he does. However, he is constantly causing problems throughout the organization. Help!

A: I don't have to tell you that you are in a real bind. I hope you have some form of noncompete with him, because there is the real possibility that you may have to terminate him.

The first thing you need to evaluate is what his behavior is costing you. When you discover the cost in terms of the negative impact on performance of others, the time and resources spent dealing with the problems he has caused, and the emotional drain on you and your management team, you will probably conclude that the cost is enormous and that you can't afford to continue his employment.

If firing him is not an option, you must change his behavior. He needs to get more reinforcement from what he is good at and what you need him to do, than he gets from the behavior you find undesirable.

If you can increase the things you want him to do, he will have less time to do the things you don't want him to do. This technique is often employed as a way to solve a problem where punishment is not an option. Our behavior tends to go toward the source of the most reinforcement. If he has more things that reinforce him in areas of his expertise than in causing problems in the organization, then that is what he will concentrate on.

At this point, the reinforcement he is getting is mostly social, not financial. In the beginning, you will need to provide social reinforcement for even small improvements in his behavior. I must point out that in most cases like this, arguments and discussions about his undesirable behavior are probably positively reinforcing to him. Therefore, when he does something that has caused a problem, you should not engage him in a long discussion about it and give him airtime to tell you what you should do and why he felt the need to do what he did. You should only tell him that what he did was wrong and that you don't want him to do it again. Don't give him an opportunity to explain. To prevent him from seething with anger over your lack of interest in his explanation, you need to be sensitive to any accomplishments in areas where you want his contribution.

You will not be able to solve this problem in days or weeks; it will probably take months. But if you are patient and consistent in your approach, you can change his behavior, which will be the best outcome for all concerned.

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, or contact at (800) 223-6191.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of 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.

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