Should You Fire Your “Star” Employee?
Every once in a blue moon, we will get a call whereby the “star” of the organization has been discovered to be a sexual harasser, or an embezzler, or someone who otherwise has no business being employed. On these calls, we get the feeling that the employer would love nothing more than for us to ask for more documentation, or a few more warnings, or say the whole matter is overblown — anything but “you need to consider firing this person.”
Has that ever happened to you? Your highest-performing salesperson — or maybe is credibly accused of sexually harassment, or you discover that your most trusted employee has engaged in some behavior that warrants his or her termination. As the employer, you go through different stages of guilt, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Especially denial. I understand, it’s hard to find out that someone you thought was “top notched” is actually a “flake”. You wish you were wrong, but as the evidence pours in, you can’t hang onto that fantasy any more. Then you start thinking, is it really that bad? Then you begin to think; “That sales assistant probably asked for it! I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes in my life. Who am I to judge?
Give me a break! Get a hold of yourself and “ante up.”
Here are some reasons why you have to toughen up, no matter how great you thought your employee was:
1. Most obviously, because sexual harassment, embezzlement, racism, falsification, violent or immoral behavior, internet hoaxes, and all that stuff is wrong. It violates your company policies (or certainly ought to), which were adopted for a good reason — to allow your employees to have a civil and peaceful, if not harmonious, workplace, to preserve the company’s financial integrity, and to protect the company’s reputation.
2. Failure to take action with “the elite” can lead to discrimination claims from the rank and file. Let’s say this week you find out that your “star” employee (who, by the way, is white) has hit on 50 women, but you look the other way because he’s been outstanding the performance of his job (probably sales). Next week you find out that the low performer, (who is coincidently black), has been sexually harassing the receptionist. Whose head will roll? CORRECT ANSWER: Nobody’s, if you ignored what the white “star” was doing. If you fire the black employee but don’t do anything to the “star”, then you could be liable for race discrimination. On the other hand, if you do nothing out of fear of race discrimination, you have employees who are victims of sexual harassment. (See Reason No. 1.)Firing the top salesperson, or key person, or your creative genius, is the only way for you to mitigate all of these problems.
3. This is the United States of America. Enforcing your rules only against the 99 percent and not the 1 percent makes you (and your company) look very bad. The same behavioral standards should apply to everybody, at all levels of the company. If you must be elitist, impose higher standards on your higher-level people, not lower ones.
4. Enforcing your rules only against the 99 percent and not the 1 percent causes everyone, at all levels, to lose respect for your company’s “system.” This is a very big deal. If enough employees notice that the rules apply to them but not to the super-high-up or the super-talented, the employees will become cynical about your grievance procedure, your open-door policy, your EEO policy, your no-harassment policy, your whistleblowing policy, and all of those other policies that you worked so hard to develop to make your company an open, fair, and fine place to work.
Let’s be realistic. You know that if employees stop coming to you with their concerns, they will go . . . elsewhere.
Of course, all of the above implies that you have already conducted a thorough investigation and determined that the “star” is, more likely than not, guilty of the misconduct. If you have good reason to believe that the allegations are false, that’s a different story. But in determining what happened, do your best not to let the accused party’s “star” status sway you in either direction.
In summary: Even if it breaks your heart to do it (and it will), be sure to treat your most-beloved employees who commit misconduct the same way you treat your average employees who commit similar misconduct. As time goes by, you’ll know you did the right thing. Be FAIR, FIRM and CONSISTENT!
The people who need to hear this are the Sales Managers. We in the Business Office know this and fight the fight constantly against the “Star Performer”. And lose most of the time. Or we don’t even hear about it at all until it gets mentioned in passing months later.