Stop Tolerating Bad Retail Employees (That Means Leaders, Too!)

Stop Tolerating Bad Retail Employees (That Means Leaders Too)!

There are two completely frustrating truths in the retail industry that have always been a gross reality:

  1. Some retail organizations still believe that length of employment is a legitimate reason to promote someone in lieu of readiness or talent or ability [another topic for another day];
  2. Retail organizations tend to hold onto toxic employees and take a hand’s-off approach and use hope as a strategy that the people will fix themselves.

First, hope is not a strategy…it can never be a strategy unless you are determined to fail. But there has always been an approach that the organization has taken that shows fear as it relates to actually cutting ties with poor performers or toxic employees that is surprising to me. Most retail leaders are aware of the legal challenges of terminating an employee and the repercussions that possibly follow. And they are, indeed, a very real danger if a company does not perform due diligence and create bulletproof documentation of performance and policy issues. Many of us are savvy to the state and federal labor laws and EEOC parameters that we need to follow as we navigate the sticky situations we deal with daily. But fearing these things doesn’t make it okay to ignore the issues. The bad performance then becomes ours because we are allowing it to exist and endorsing it by being cowards.

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According to a McKinsey study, 59% of employees would be “delighted” if managers dealt with problem employees, but only 7% of those responding to employee surveys believed their companies were actually doing it.

This is about the poor performing employee who delivers absolutely no overall benefit or contribution to an organization either as an individual or as part of a collective team. Someone that is so completely awful [and here is the kicker – they may be highly-productive but have a terrible attitude] that they actually create obstacles to success on their team. Having a problem employee or leader on your team is bad. Not firing them is worse. There are high costs associated with maintaining [and encouraging by inaction] the relationship with the bad employee:

  • They can threaten the morale of the other employees in their area and in the company;
  • They deliver second-rate work and bring others down with them, reducing overall productivity on the team and in the organization;
  • 18% of toxic employees actively undermine their co-workers’ success;
  • If you or the organization aren’t willing to make the tough decisions, your good employees will lose trust and respect for you;
  • You are setting a precedent that positive contribution and showing up every day with a can-do attitude has no bearing on an employee’s success in your company;
  • It causes a slow and painful deterioration to both employee loyalty and effort. Some will hang in there with you, but many will see your allegiance to an untouchable as a personal affront to their career aspirations. If the sentiment is the latter, you will either lose people or see people do less, because they will figure working hard isn’t a worthy approach in your company. [Source: TLNT];
  • These employees and leaders disrupt and erode the values of the organization by being allowed to participate in a culture they didn’t contribute to and, likely, consistently undermine.

And what about the horrible “leader” in Retail? According to Janine N. Truitt, founder of “The Aristocracy of HR” blog, “You all know at least one leader that you have encountered that shouldn’t be allowed to lead anyone- let alone be employed by a company in such a capacity. They are not always the vile characters we often think about. Sometimes they are just cunning, undercutting, always playing and dealing a card at the right time. Everyone on their staff sees them for who they are. Internal and external partners even see it. The trouble is when HR ignores the smoke and the C-Suite is blinded completely by charm and other artificially-sweetened personality trickery. There are usually attempts to dethrone this person, but they are usually thwarted by a lengthy list of reasons why the person cannot be fired.

Their collateral damage far outweighs any contributions they make to the company. They cause revolution inside the culture they promised to lead and guide their team around. They cost the company talent, money, productivity, motivation, and customers.

Firing bad employees isn’t just about the “soft” issue of maintaining a happy culture. According to Gallup, disengaged workers cost the US economy $350 billion per year in lost productivity. If you keep the bad employees, the good employees will leave.

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So, How Can We Identify Problem Employees?

Here are some common behaviors that can potentially mean 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 need to be managed and their 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;
  • 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.

According to Ari Rosenstein, there are Five Types of Difficult Employees:

  • The Bully. Personality traits for the Bully may include physical and verbal intimidation, shouting, profanity, throwing objects, blaming others and threats.  This behavior is often caused by low self-esteem and from seeking control. In order to deal with a bully, a manager should be firm; use open-ended questions; not compete, take notes, and require their cooperation to sit down and talk. If there are frequent outbursts,  it is critical to address the issues immediately to ensure a safe workplace.
  • The Procrastinator has trouble starting/completing tasks and lacks motivation. This is caused by a fear of humiliation, rejection, and failure.  It helps to set procrastinators up on a specific timetable, with required “mini” updates. Also, a manager must be prepared to re-assign the project to someone else.
  • The Passive Aggressive is friendly to your face and negative behind your back.  Not a team player, they agree with everything but end up doing what they want.  The passive aggressive is angry but dislikes confrontation.  The manager should be specific; concrete in expectations; clear about consequences; and try not to over supervise this type.
  • The Gossip talks to everyone about anything due to an extreme need to be liked and accepted. The manager should never participate in gossip and immediately identify it while using disciplinary action if necessary.
  • The Constant Critic falsely accuses and undermines others behind closed doors, including the boss and company decisions.  This type also humiliates others in public settings in order to control the emotional climate at work.

For more retail “Toxic Employees In Retail” Descriptors, click the orange title.

Why Addressing The Issue Immediately Is Important

As leaders. when we take on a negative employee, we send a clear message to our teams and the organization that we are a strong manager up to the task. We also show that we are willing to protect the team and culture. Additionally, we reinforce the value and appreciation that we have for the contributions of our hardworking, productive, and positive team members. When the Retail Organization supports leadership by allowing them to deal with the bad employee(s) in the workplace, they send the clear message to the organization that they are committed to the culture and the mission statement and values. These things are more than just words but the true guiding principles of the the business.


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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2 thoughts on “Stop Tolerating Bad Retail Employees (That Means Leaders, Too!)

  1. You hit the bulleye on this article. Toxic employees do bring down the good ones. I use the spring water example and what happens when you add one drop of black ink. It turns it all black. Thank you for this great eye opener.

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