Breaking Up With Employees In Today’s Workplace

Breaking Up With Employees In Today’s Workplace

One of my favorite things about my background is the relationships I have built throughout my career. I love getting communication from past colleagues. Sometimes they check-in just to chat, sometimes they share their success, sometimes they are seeking advice, and/or need support in their current role. I value and appreciate these moments of being available and a source of knowledge for them. An objective voice in what they believe is chaotic and is – usually – actually relatively simple when you extract emotion out of it. One of the biggest differences I see based on where my colleagues have landed in their careers is that when the environment is filled with highly-paid, highly-skilled workers the dialogs are VERY different from those who are involved in environments that employee largely low-skill, low-wage workers.

In the high-pay and high-skill environments my dialogs usually revolve around career path planning and keeping high-initiative employees engaged and actively challenged in their current role while waiting/working for an elevated role – these dialogs are fun and forward thinking. In low-skill, low-wage environments it usually revolves around a critical lack of honesty/transparency, lack of initiative, excessive entitlement, and severe poor performance.

It is two completely different realms of conversation and profoundly interesting to dissect during moments of reflection. The unfortunate reality is that there are significantly more of the latter in the retail industry than the healthy, forwarding-thinking kind. What the result of this is – an overwhelming number of dialogs about memorializing conversations, documentation of accountability’s, and futile attempts to motivate/inspire bland employees who fight growth and improvement. In other words, “managing” troublemakers becomes the primary focus of company “leadership” in these low-wage, low-skill environments.

This type of culture begs the question how effective can a culture with moldy, ineffective hiring and zero development processes be in maintaining relevance in today’s economy? In a situation I was consulted on a few times over the course of the past couple days, it’s no surprise this organization is on the most recent list of 34 retailers at risk of closing stores – without a doubt, it’s primarily due to the caliber and criteria of hire and lack of investment in training, development, and candidate vetting. However, as it is their reality there [and in far too many workplaces] there was very specific guidance I delivered around what to look out for, how to manage an effective process of accountability, and if – in the end – the relationship is not salvageable – some things to consider.

Rebel Or Troublemaker

One of the first things that needs to be objectively determined is – is the employee a rebel or are they a troublemaker? Troublemakers complain about problems and do nothing to improve the situation. They actually use impediments to excuse performance or assign blame. Rebels – on the other hand – are solution focused and usually action oriented. Troublemakers are excessively entitled “me monsters” who happily disrupt forward momentum; where rebels are vision- and team-focused. Rebels can galvanize unity and collaboration; whereas workplace troublemakers are toxic and frequently alienate those around them. Though both personalities challenge the status quo – albeit for very different reasons – you will quickly see the rebel rise to the occasion and deliver unique and progressive ideas on – and action around – how to achieve commitments and goals.

How Do We Identify True Troublemakers

Here are some common behaviors that can potentially signal you have an issue on your hands:

  • Ultimatums: If your employee is consistently acting as if one foot is out the door, it might be time to give show them the exit;
  • “That’s Not My Job”: If your employee is unwilling to step outside their black and white job description and help others or take on additional assignments, that is a huge red flag;
  • They Need To Be Managed: Successful employees need to be supported and inspired. They want leadership that is a business partner. Poor performers are myopic and frequently hinder the business – these are the ones that need to be managed and their constant issues pull focus away from the team;
  • They Frequently Reference Policy and Law: This a huge identifier of problem employees. They use this information, frequently, to protect them from documentation or accountability. These are also people who consistently threaten to “seek legal advice” when they are held accountable for the basics;
  • Complaints: Don’t ignore complaints from your most valuable team members. Your employees are your eyes and ears, so as long as you can count on one or two of them to give you an honest assessment of the situation, use that inside information to identify the problem and ultimately aim to fix it one way or the other. It’s much easier to address little problems when they start to bubble up than it is to manage a messy accumulation of them. If your team members complain about performing tasks that are part and parcel to their job or they lie to create larger issues than actually exist – you have a troublemaker on your hands.

Create Bulletproof Documentation

According to Allison West, Esq., SPHR Employment Practices here are the steps you need to Create Bulletproof Documentation:

  • Document Expectations
  • Document the Conduct (positive or negative)
  • Document the Employee’s Explanation
  • Document the Specific Action Plan/Goals
  • Document the Timing
  • Document the Follow-Up
  • Document the Consequences

How To Effectively Deliver Negative Feedback

As human leaders it is our responsibility to set the standard for effective communication. Sometimes we are coaching and delivering bad news to people we genuinely like. My first memorable experience with this was having to suspend and – ultimately – separate one of my favorite people on this earth from the company we were working for. He understood the challenges his attendance issue was creating and the ramifications if it wasn’t fixed. More than 15 years later he is still one of my best friends and we frequently reminisce [and laugh] about this historical event. But one of the reasons we maintained our friendship was because there was always a high-level of respect and honesty in our conversations, regardless of the content of the dialog we were having.

  • ADDRESS IT: Don’t use “hope” as your primary strategy that the issue will work itself out. It doesn’t and it won’t. It’s absolutely naive [and irresponsible] to believe “it will blow over” or “it wasn’t that big of a deal” You will end up looking like a coward – and when you ultimately have to address it [and you definitely will], it will be virtually impossible not to come across as weak and and defensive.  So, when something has gone wrong IMMEDIATELY devise and action your plan for communicating it, even though it will be uncomfortable, awkward, and possibly humbling. You will show your commitment to your leadership development and being authentic and reliable when you address it quickly and with confidence.
  • BE ACCURATE AND OBJECTIVE: If you attempt to sugar coat a tough conversation or deal with it as if it is an existential issue – it will backfire. Maybe not today – but at some point. Deal with the real and actual issue – extract the emotion and rely on the facts to communicate the details and status. Keep it simple. Keep it clear, Keep it fair. Keep it balanced. Your position and reputation will be much more protected when you present all communication with these criteria in mind.
  • TAKE OWNERSHIP: When things go really wrong – it is a waste of time to assign blame or excuse any part of the situation. Like it or not, as a leader, you are a part of “it” and you must deal with it. A true leader will never try to wiggle out from under an issue [self-inflicted or not]. Instead they take full responsibility for whatever has has happened, or – and this is critical caveat – for whatever their team or the company has done, it sends a powerful and admirable message of leadership confidence, courage, and honor. Seriously – if you are the leader of a team or a company and something bad has happened – a mistake, poor results, crummy customer service – it happened on your watch, and to make an attempt to distance yourself from the issue and talk about the problem as though you are a passive, third party bystander is a never the right decision and your reputation will be tarnished in the short- and long-term if this is the route you choose.
  • LISTEN: One of the worst mistakes I see emerging – and even some tenured [including myself] – leaders make when addressing an issue is to try to talk their audience out of feeling their emotions. That usually just fuels their frustration. Once you have acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room you need to expect and empathize with the reality that people will want to talk about it and have feelings around it. All of your hard work up to this point – addressing it, being accurate & objective about it, taking ownership of it – can completely be diminished if you deliver news and then try to contain and control people’s natural response to it. One of the signs of really remarkable leaders is that they surface issues and then work through the process organically with their teams to earn buy-in and ultimately – resolution to the issue(s).
  • TALK ABOUT NEXT STEPS: This step is critical into turning what was an a bag of lemons and turning it into delicious lemonade. It’s a pivotal step in the process, getting past the “yucky stuff”. The natural culmination of taking full responsibility for the less-than-positive news is to say how you’re going to turn it around and support the other person/people involved in doing their part to turn it around – people expect and want that from their leaders, rightfully so.
  • DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU’LL DO: This is an often forgotten step in the process and in leadership, in general. If you follow ALL the steps above, and then don’t make the effort and/or take continued ownership of your portion of the solution to improve the situation, you’ll lose credibility quickly.  Great leadership is committed to delivering on their promises. True leaders recognize and realize that difficult situations with their attendant bad/disappointing messages are very rarely resolved after one conversation – you’ll [more often than not] have to follow a sequence through these steps more than a single time, and to a variety of audiences depending on the scope of the challenge(s).

You’ve Exhausted All Options And It’s Time To Part Ways – Here Are Some Things You Should Keep In Mind

Now, more than ever, we need to treat departing employees with care, kindness, and respect regardless of why the relationship is concluding. Even if they are SO horrible today we want to throw a party when then time comes to separate with them.  There was a time when they were valuable and critical to the business or your team. A “bad breakup” with any employee is a big mistake – no matter how you look at it. The party who leaves and the party who is left both must have compassion and understanding around the emotions at the time of separation – the frustration about mistakes that were made, the disagreements over performance expectations, strategy, and/or schedules, and the heated clashes of opinion don’t mean much after a short period of time. What remains is an understanding from shared experiences, from lessons learned, and – hopefully – from some great successes. Those are the important memories to protect in the long run.

Working in the retail industry for the majority of my career  I realize how profound these relationships can be. As a matter of fact, my very first Director of Stores [and one of my most influential leaders in my early retail years and up to today] told me, “never burn a bridge in retail – it’s too small a community and you will run into everyone again at some point”. Truer words have never been spoken! Here are some points to consider the next time it’s time to break up with an employee:

  • We Live In An Exciting, Connected, & Social World: As a matter of fact, positive word of mouth plays a gigantic role in building a good company and professional reputation where the best talent wants to work and support.  LinkedIn, Facebook, Slack, and other social networks help people share invaluable business contacts. Former employees are easily sourced and asked by potential clients and prospective employees/employers about your reputation and their experience with you. They can drive business and talent enthusiastically towards or away from you and your company. Former colleagues may become future colleagues at some point in today’s evolving and collaborative workplaces.
  • Former Employees Can Be Future Resources: Former employees have a working knowledge about your business – and you as a leader – that practically guarantees they’ll always be beneficial to stay connected with.  With the knowledge of your organization’s vision/mission, they can provide an incredible external and objective perspective that is sometimes lost within the confines of a company dealing with the minutiae of day to day operations. Depending on where they land in their career journey they can make introductions around a collaboration opportunity or support your business in some other way. Their paycheck is not longer delivered by your vision anymore, but as part of your professional [and even personal] network and history they will continue to do things that can help propel your vision forward and support your organization’s growth and health.
  • Employment Monogamy Is History: Unlike most of our grandfathers and their fathers – employees today are no longer committed [nor do they have to be] to a single company for years. Especially in an industry like retail – there is a lot of movement and almost dizzying daily evolution. It’s expected that people will change jobs and switch careers a few times.   It’s accepted that an employee may join a competitor at some point or the most ambitious and driven employees may outpace you in career path and roles that only increase their knowledge and value.  Exceptional employees may collaborate with acquaintances and rivals at other companies. In today’s world we are, likely, less than six degrees separated from others in our industries, but each connection and relationship we maintain and foster can support future collaboration and learning/growth opportunities for every leader and the company they represent.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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