Treat People with Kid Gloves or Hit them with a Hammer?

Businesses are certainly populated with their fair share of jerks.  They come in many varieties.  There is the “in your face, yelling” type.  The “I’m going behind your back to undermine you” type.  Even the “if you trust me I’ll steal you blind” type.

The problem is, until a jerk shows their true colors, it can be tough to recognize them for what they truly are – jerks.

When they do demonstrate what they’re made of, the big questions for me were always:  Do I believe it? and How do I handle them?

Believing the best

I’ve always had a propensity for believing the best about people.  When they explode in anger, I search for provocation to justify their reaction.  When they undermine a co-worker, I look for an explanation that indicates they’ve somehow been misinterpreted.  When they steal from the company, I have a tough time accepting the person I thought I knew would do such a thing.

Yeah, I was often far too much of a softy.

Others were usually quicker to pass judgment.  That explosion of anger became a ticket to a new assignment, and usually not a desirable one.  Undermining became a reason to boot the employee off the team, and often out of the company.  Theft was dealt with swiftly and often involved the police.

Over time I have come to see there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but on balance the quick-to-judge/swift-to-react prescription is safer.

Swift, savage judgment is probably correct 60-80% of the time.  When the person judging is wrong, a good resource can be crushed.  Even if the judgment is largely correct, there is little room consider mitigating circumstances or work toward reform.

A slow study wastes time, but is more likely to judge correctly.  By delaying, however, peers and subordinates often wonder what is taking so long.  This delay can often have an adverse impact on morale.

And then what?

Regardless of whether you’re a quick study, or slow and deliberate, there is little doubt that once you’ve identified an employee as a poor performer – and particularly, a jerk – you should act decisively.

By decisively, I specifically mean quickly, and while humanely, without excessive “compassion.”

Why does it take so long?

During a recruiting class I attended several years ago, the instructor – a business professor – remarked that the average amount of time that elapses between when a manager recognizes an employee is not suitable for their job, and when they are removed, is an astounding nine months.  Not sure of the source of this tidbit, but after observing many reassignment and termination actions, the interval rings true.

For what it’s worth, I cannot recall a single instance during my career where once I recognized I was having serious doubts about an employee that I didn’t ultimately end up making a change.  Often took a long time to reach that point.  Why?  I was confirming my instincts were correct.  I was giving second, third, or even fourth chances.  I was trying to coach or counsel an employee to “fix” a problem behavior.

The bottom line was:  These measures never worked!

I’ve concluded that once doubts about an employee emerge, it is time to run those doubts to ground.  Now.  No waiting.  Then, as soon as possible, decisive action needs to be taken, usually consisting of job redesign, job transfer or termination.

Why waste time?

Now is not the time to be Mr. Nice Guy

When letting an employee go, I’ve often tried to cushion the blow by offering some options.  “You can either take this role, or we’ll help you with outplacement” – that kind of thing.

Most of the time this helped the employee deal with a difficult situation.  Having walked in their shoes, I can assure you it would have helped me.  And it helped me, too.

But when the departing employee is a jerk, all bets are off.

Under those circumstances, you should set your humane instincts aside, and just get the deed done cleanly and quickly.

How it can go wrong

In one “jerk” termination incident, I offered an HR manager the opportunity to take a specialist role within the department.  I was going to recruit a new leader, but he could stay on to handle recruiting – a job I felt he handled well.  There would be no pay cut, but at least he’d have a job.

That gave the manager enough time to steal several personnel files he thought contained embarrassing information.  And time to engage a lawyer.  A short time later, I had a threatening letter from the lawyer in my hands.  It was then the jerk was terminated.

Over the course of a couple of years, he filed a lawsuit and discretely threatened to publically reveal details of an incident that would embarrass the company (I was not involved).  Eventually, he wrangled a mid-five figure settlement out of us.

Had I just fired him, the whole affair would have been far less damaging.

In another incident, I removed a part owner from his role as general manager of a joint venture.  As part of getting him out, I offered an alternative position and proposed to purchase his shares of the JV at a particular price and under a particular set of terms and conditions.

In this case, it was the share purchase that the jerk used to his advantage.

The former general manager wanted the cash, but he also wanted to renegotiate the terms.  When I ultimately pulled the deal off the table, he sued.  The ensuing lawsuit wasted man-months of my time, and ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of dollars when we lost.

Had I simply sent him packing and worried about the shares later, I would have avoided a huge pile of problems and complications.


Cushioning the blow when an employee is terminated can provide comfort to the employee and reduce your own feelings of guilt.  When a jerk is involved, however, it can all go wrong fast.  Unfortunately, you can’t always spot the jerk ahead of time.  Unless you’re sure you’re dealing with a “non-jerk,” it is better to proceed under the assumption that you have one on your hands.

Under those circumstances, quick, decisive action that is “fair,” but also does whatever is practical to protect both you and company, is your best course of action.  25.4

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My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.