The Bad Egg

A client recently encouraged a “good” employee to leave the firm, and in relating the story was clearly ambivalent about it.

I was frankly surprised. First, I heard all the good things – hard working, smart, experienced. Then, “I suggested he look at this other firm that was hiring.” Woah.

Turns out, Dr. Jekyll had a Mr. Hyde side — this “good” employee is also a gossip who never has anything good to say about management, who is always looking for a gripe or a grievance to complain about, and who seems impervious to outreach. He happens to like my client enough that “he doesn’t see me as part of management” — clearly a backhanded compliment.

When do you try to keep such a person, and when do you help them find the door?

It’s a hard choice. No employee is perfect; some admittedly are even less perfect than others. Still, I would opt for reform first. Here’s the tack I would take:

  1. Identify very explicitly the behavior that is a problem. In this case, it’s gossip, negative story-telling, and refusing to see “the other side” when the other side is management.
  2. As Dr. Alan Kazdin would put it, identify in your own mind an equally explicit “positive opposite” that would be a competing behavior – by “competing behavior” I mean one that would get in the way of the negative behavior. Just as playing nicely with your sister is a competing behavior with hitting her (you cannot do both at once), this would be something like finding the most positive possible interpretation for management’s positions, or, finding out from management why they’ve taken a policy stance, and then repeating it to your peers.
  3. Coach the employee on the importance of the positive behavior, without directly mentioning their negative behavior at all. Role play it several times with them. I might bring it up like this: “Fred, you’re a senior person here with a lot of clout. You have the ability to really help management understand the workers, and help the workers understand management. You could really help your co-workers and me by using your influence. Would you help me out by role playing this with me? That way I can show you what I have in mind.”
  4. Every time you encounter Fred, remind him of how important his role as a go-between is, to encourage understanding between management and the other workers. Ask for a status update on what misunderstandings he’s been able to clear up, or if he has questions for you about an issue where he doesn’t yet understand management’s position. And ask what’s bothering people – if there are ways workers don’t feel heard.

Remember that this has to be genuine – never be dishonest or manipulative. After all, the whole reason Fred is a potential liability is because people listen to him – so, make that a positive. Give Fred the information he lacks – that is, management’s point of view. Enlist him as an ally. You won’t have to work hard to make him feel important because he is important, and your normal behavior towards him will reflect and reinforce that.

Once you have a baseline where Fred is at least sometimes doing what you want, you have the ability to take notice if he does his old pattern of gossip. You can ask him (very gently) to come to you if he feels management is in the wrong so you can either help him fix it, or help him understand the perspective he’s currently not seeing.

And if none of this works, okay – you’ve had valuable practice in redirecting negative behaviors, and you’ve given him a chance to improve. You can help him find the door with a clear conscience, and onlookers will see you as more than fair.

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