CXO

Options for a CIO dealing with employee's bad attitude

Modifying the unproductive, toxic behavior of one of your staff members can be done if you choose the right method of working with the employee one-on-one.


CIO Republic’s monthly column, CIO HR Corner, focuses on helping IT executives find the right answers and approaches for staffing and personnel issues. If you have a question you’d like CIO Republic columnist Peter Woolford to answer, e-mail it to us.

Question
I'm a CIO who has a pretty solid staff, with one exception. One of my employees is extremely technically competent but very negative. It seems like he's always the source of negative gossip and is generally the naysayer on any endeavors we attempt. He's having a toxic effect on the rest of the group. Is there any way to eliminate this problem, short of firing?

Answer
It sounds like you’ve already tried ignoring the problem. I've tried ignoring the problem, too. Instead of staying as-is, the toxic individual's behavior worsens, and the negative attitude spreads even more. It’s most devastating if the employee is a manager over direct reports.

Recognize that whatever you decide will probably result in turnover of some sort on your team. Inaction will likely lead to turnover among your solid staff. On the other hand, action with or against this employee may correct the poor behavior, but may also result in his leaving. Let’s examine some options to minimize your losses.

Given this employee's skills, you probably rely on him for crucial work. In other words, you have been forced to live with his bad behavior. Does he realize this? Is the toxic behavior a case of prima donna syndrome? If so, you could train someone to cover his work. This could be an internal transfer or a new hire. Maybe he'll realize he's replaceable and change his ways. If he doesn’t change his ways, at least you will have made progress; you'll no longer be beholden to him.

If you believe he is truly irreplaceable, you could isolate him. Put him in the corner, or in his own office. Schedule meetings without him. Suggest he work from home. Minimize his contact with the rest of the team, and you'll minimize the spread of his toxic attitude.

On the other hand, he may not be a prima donna. He may simply be a jerk. Either way, if you have his replacement ready to go, you don’t necessarily have to figure out which is the cause of his toxic behavior.

Once you've decided what the situation involves, you can approach the employee with one of several methods. I've had varying levels of success with each of the following approaches:
  • One-time counseling session: Schedule a meeting with him and point out the error of his ways. Depending on the urgency of the situation, this can be a calm and reflective review, or it can be an emotional tirade. It’s up to you to control the tone of the session.
  • Weekly counseling session: Often, once is not enough to change behavior permanently. Weekly counseling gives you opportunities to point out more examples of toxic behavior and drive home your point that this behavior must change. Your negative team member will find it more difficult to avoid or deny the problem than if you held a single session. These first two options are your best approaches if you are more effective when you are calm.
  • Situational counseling: Pull the person aside each time the behavior happens, immediately after it happens. The advantage to this approach is the immediate response to the negative behavior. The disadvantage is the disruption this will cause to your schedule. If you want to deliver a more emotional impact, though, this approach would be ideal.
  • Peer counseling: Ask a trusted, well-respected peer to counsel the person. If the cause of the toxic behavior is his relationship with you, this approach takes you out of the equation. This avoids the boss-as-bad-guy problem the other approaches cause. However, remember that it is ultimately your job to be the bad guy, if that is warranted. Don't duck your responsibilities.
  • HR counseling: At some companies, HR would insist on being involved in any counseling that could result in termination. It certainly would send a much stronger message to the employee if an HR person were sitting there taking notes. I would not recommend sending him to HR for counseling without you. You might find that he would simply deny the toxic behavior, and you would be back where you started.

I’d like to add one note here about what you definitely shouldn't do: Transfer the employee to another group. Unless you feel very strongly that there would be a better fit there, and it would somehow bring him out of his problematic behavior, don’t foist the problem off on another manager. It’s tough to be the one to cut the ropes but, in the long run, it’s what’s best for the organization.

It’s up to you to decide whether you can live with this employee’s negative behavior, what effect it will have on the other team members, and/or how much effort you'll choose to expend on trying to correct his behavior. Remember also that you as a manager are judged on how well you handle issues like this.

In any case, it’s well worth a call to your HR folks to alert them to the situation and to ask their advice. Documenting the file in this way can protect both you and your company down the road, and yield professional advice that could help you arrive at the best resolution of a difficult situation.

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