When Good Employees Go Bad – Part 1

A day when I don’t feel like writing. I want to act not think, largely because I’m anxious about an employee I want to fire but to whom I owe an opportunity to fix what isn’t working. She’s opinionated, negative, defensive and passive aggressive. And

For several years the positive aspects of her performance outweighed these traits, so I just ignored them. But for the past few months they’ve worsened to the point of becoming intolerable. I’ve lived in fear of outbursts and/or sulks at my own business, and no boss should tolerate that. I believe she may have grown tired of her job and just doesn’t have the energy to do her best. I also think it would be best for her and for me if she moved on. But you don’t just fire someone who’s served you well.

I’ve had an initial conversation with her, after a long weekend and one sleepless night of thinking about the issues. The conversation went well, in that she listened without saying much, which is in fact one of the performance expectations I was saying she had to meet: she needs to listen to questions and criticism without rebutting instantly. Her usual response is to tell me I’m wrong and, as I said, it’s getting worse in that she seems to find my interventions exasperating.

What’s keeping me on pins and needles now is that I also said in the initial conversation that when I criticize her she should think about what I’ve said and come back with a thoughtful response when she’s ready. Only fair, right? But she’s said that she’s writing out a response and it may take a while because I’ve taken away her use of the store desktop computer while she’s on warning. She has arthritis, she says, and cannot write by hand for long periods of time.

That very statement is part of the problem. Two passive aggressive implications: “you needlessly took away a privilege,” and “now I have to do something that hurts.” My knee-jerk reaction is, “What are you, 11?” Why couldn’t she just say, “I want to respond to you in writing and it may take a couple of weeks.” I’d be nervous if she’d done the latter, but not as anxious as I am now.

What she says leads me to believe that the response I eventually receive may also be an illustration of the problem(s). It’s no good anticipating that, because that’s wasted energy, right? Or is it?

There is a question before me and I’m responsible for answering it. If my employee can’t understand the nature of my stated expectations, or doesn’t want to accept same, or isn’t capable of changing her behavior, then what’s the good of a warning period? I’ve committed to giving her a chance, but what will we do if she spends it defending herself?

It occurs to me that one of the lessons I learned in corporate life is that some people are uncoachable, and therefore unfit for positions into which they must grow. Such people often act as if there’s no need for growth because they’re already there. I wonder if my employee is in just that situation. Maybe she’s doing a job she feels fully capable of and doesn’t see herself as blocked in any aspect of it. Maybe she doesn’t see the limitations that I see.

If that’s the case, and as I write I’m thinking that it is, then I’m going to have to fire her. The hard part is waiting out the warning period, and/or giving her continued negative feedback until she either gets it that I’m not going to relent and leaves on her own; or continues to try to wear me down for a couple of months.

There’s no easy way to end this meditation, because the situation is on-going, as is my perplexity. Maybe it’s like a 12 step program: you take it a day at a

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