Leadership Puzzler: Long-Term Employees That No Longer Fit

leadership puzzlerThis is the launch of a new monthly feature I call, “Leadership Puzzlers.” The “Puzzlers” are stories in business that I will share to show where one of the puzzle pieces was not properly in place, or not being utilized, and how ultimately the problem was solved.

For this month, we’re going to talk about that long-term employee who no longer fits the organization’s culture or doesn’t have the skills to grow with the company.

I’ve seen it so often it’s almost a given when I go into an organization these days. As an outsider, it’s often hard to spot because the face they present to a consultant is one of “sage keeper of the company history” – been there, done that, jack-of-all-trades. It’s only when you dig deeper that you see the person is still doing things the way they did 10 years ago, has no curiosity for learning new things, and people are actually afraid of them.

Why are people afraid of them? Because the person usually holds a position of authority. It is also the case that upper management assumes that because of the longevity of this person, they also have immense knowledge about how to do their job, (and the jobs of others for that matter). The other piece is that these types of employees are usually scared of someone finding out that they don’t know all they pretend to, e.g. that the technology or business strategy has long since surpassed their knowledge base. As a result they find ways to blame others for things and get rid of anyone who questions them or tries to do something different.

The long-term employee is afraid of change because change would expose their weaknesses. At some point, this person just stopped learning because they decided they knew enough and they had found a “comfortable groove” they could maintain. In any business, this is a deadly sin because you can never know enough. New ideas are what fuels innovation, which fuels growth.

How do you spot these types of employees? Ask A LOT of questions. Usually within 2-3 weeks I can spot this person in a company, even from my position as an outsider. At first, they are very willing, (almost too eager), to help me be successful. Then they start to hold back information, become short in their tone, or act as if somehow I’m asking a bad or stupid question. They start to circle the wagons. When I ask questions of others, I start to hear the same theme – oh “that” person. Don’t get on their bad side! Be careful! She/he has a reputation! If she/he decides they don’t like you, they’ll make your life hell and then you’ll be gone!

So, how do you solve this puzzle? First, share your observations with upper management. Share concrete examples of behavior, not your opinions. Focus on the risk to the company and other employees by the continued behavior patterns. Once you have buy-in that there is an issue, treat it like you would any other behavioral issue with an employee. Sit down and discuss the specific behavior that needs to be changed, by when, what help you can provide, and the consequences if the behavior is not improved.

With a long-term employee, the likelihood of change is low, but I have seen it happen in some cases. Sometimes, the employee has never been told specifically what the problem is and will do what it takes to correct it. More often, however, they will deny it, agree to work on it, but not make any changes. In this case the best course of action is to allow the person to retire or resign with dignity. Give them a big severance package, a nice party, and say goodbye. It won’t be until they are gone that you feel a different energy in the company, and you’ll soon start to hear stories of their behavior that will make you cringe.

The important lesson here however, is how to prevent this from happening again. It’s easy. Never assume that someone’s tenure connotes competence. Sometimes it is just the opposite, and when it is, this will become the company’s constraint to growth until it’s resolved. Everyone needs to perform to the highest standards, no matter how long they’ve been around.

photo credit: Horia Varlan via photopin cc