Monday, September 4, 2017

Handling Problem Employees in The Digital Age

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A friend of mine owns one of the largest independent web agencies on the East Coast. He is sharp, takes no prisoners and runs his company like a well-oiled machine. Business is great these days. Over the past five years he's had his ups and downs, but after reviewing the bigger picture, he is taking very cautious expansion steps.  

When last we spoke, he was focused on a larger space, getting investors and attracting top talent in full-time positions.

Our phone conversation went something like this:

"We hired a full-time writer with great credentials and a killer resume."

"And the problem is?"
I like to tease him for maximum effect...I knew where he was headed.

"Well, it turns out he can't write worth spit!"
"So rescind your offer and look for someone else."

"You don't understand...He starts full-time employment in two weeks."

"You signed an employment contract?"


"How did you not find this out sooner?"

"His references checked out and his writing samples were perfect...what should I do?"

"Did you talk to your lawyer?"


I come from the old school of management, so I suggested he fire the guy and let the chips fall where they may. But times are different. Firing someone when they are about to transition from one job to the other can leave even a small company in a precarious situation.

94% of all lawsuits in the world take place in the United States. Suing companies is big business here.

It turns out, my friend had done his due diligence. He saw no reason not to sign the employment contract. Mr. Incompetent put in his two weeks notice and was just about to start. Over a two-week period they had him get his feet wet by freelancing on some projects. It became apparent that this guy had grossly misrepresented himself. After sending me some samples, I realized this future employee was writing below a 6th grade level. At $85,000 a year, this had the potential to be a major lawsuit.

It seemed so cut and dry - employee can't do the job so fire him. But why can't he be fired before he starts?

I spoke with another colleague and friend Bruce Fuller, (former), head of Human Resources at Newmark Night Frank of New York City. His response comes from 20 years as a human resource professional...

"To do this justice we have to crank back the video tape and ask a question: How in the world could an offer go out to a corporate writer at that salary and you didn't know he couldn't write? The manager who hired this person should be handed their hat. I would bet you a weeks pay his old company is laughing all the way to the bar because they were able to unload this lox on you. At this point the only cheap long shot way out is hoping for an unacceptable background report (If you do them. If you don't...double shame).

Alternatively, you can hire a good labor attorney who might be able to get you out of this deal, but it isn't going to be cheap. That's pretty much it. You're stuck and have to wait for an opportunity to rightfully terminate his employment. Hopefully you didn't add insult to injury by finding this person through an outside recruiter and paying a fee on top."

Ouch. But it happens all the time - The resume is perfect; the references check out, the writing samples were lightning strikes of brilliant Kafka-esque poetry that flowed like champagne. The advertising world would bow knowing the agency had pulled a major coup. One could almost see the CASIE awards (Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment), lined up in the trophy case.

The problem is, this person misrepresented himself. Discovering that a potential or current employee has pulled the wool over your eyes can feel like betrayal of the highest degree. I personally have enough war stories on this subject to write a book...wait a minute...I did write a book about it;-)

The amount of duplicity that goes into creating such a ruse is astounding. The writing samples, the stable of friends and colleagues who are willing to lie, and the total lack of self-analysis begs to wonder if this person is best suited for life as a CIA agent instead of a writing career. Most of us know when it is time to step up to the next salary level. It's intuitive. (But then again, most of us have ethics and morals.) Others just want to go for the glory and the money without really taking a review of their capabilities. There's ambition and there's stupidity.

Thirty years ago this guy would have been fired. No questions asked. Incompetence was not tolerated. But today, employment law is big money, and incompetence seems to be rewarded with promotions.

Driven by fear we seem to be living in a topsy-turvy world which is even worse at the executive levels. I've personally had bad managers pawned off on me only to find that they were the laughing stock of the industry. Lawyers have made it impossible to tell the truth about a former employee, and as a result, most new hires are becoming the rotten egg that gets passed from one place to another.

Over eight years ago the New York Times Magazine did a study and found that many high school students didn't know the difference between right and wrong. One of the most glaring results of the study was when teenagers were asked what defines a thief? One who steals or one who is caught stealing? More than 70% of the students answered the latter. So stealing is okay as long as you don't get caught? This is why so many bad employment stories like these are becoming the norm. It also explains why many corporations are putting into place background dossiers, blood tests, and a quick double check at the local police department, (just in case). Lying has become the norm.

Case in point: Many years ago one of my business partners hired a seasoned creative director. He did this by not going through HR, but instead, railroaded this guy down our throats. His mistaken belief was that this individual would make us competitive against the bigger agencies. So he ignored protocol. Protocol that was designed to weed out the jerks.

With a traditional background, and significantly older than us, this guy had just enough Internet experience on his resume to make him a shoo-in for the job. Despite having experience at the largest ad agencies in the world and a couple of years at a web agency in Chicago, something was fishy. The weird part is that we had very capable individuals already on staff with the same background; they just weren't seasoned enough for my business partner.

At five-foot-one-inch, this new creative director was a dead ringer for Davy Jones from the Monkees. From day one he treated the staff like dirt. Machiavellian in his approach to management, he couldn't understand why our staff went behind his back to complain. He vacillated from furious at those who questioned his authority, to trying to be your best buddy. Word spread quickly that Davy Jones was passive aggressive.

The next three months turned into hell. No one could control this guy. And as things got increasingly bad, employees began to quit. Worse yet, we couldn't fire him because we had signed an ironclad three-year contract. (In New York State, the contract is king). My business partners and I tried to find reasons to fire him. The only solution we had was to track every serious problem to build our case.

After many discussions, he would tone down his act for a few weeks, then return to his unique, bristling style of management. His performance was great, but he was causing larger morale issues. No one wanted to work with him.

I predicted to my partners that this would end with him exploding or worse yet attacking one of our staff. Yes, his temper was that bad. I was sent away with no solutions. I am not a psychologist, but I know bipolar behavior when I see it.

Eventually, Davy Jones' anger got him in trouble. During a late night deadline, one of our art directors decided to use a different typeface for a national ad. Davy Jones decided to argue with him and eventually decided the best way to handle this situation was to strangle the living daylights out of the art director. (Imagine a five foot one inch man in high heeled cowboy boots attempting to strangle a six-foot two inch body builder with a European-American background. You get the picture of how silly this was.) That evening, our problem employee was escorted from the building in handcuffs.

If I had it to do all over again, Davy Jones would have been let go at the first sign of a problem. 

We lost five employees due to our inability to act. What kept us from doing so was the respect we had for our business partners' emotionally based arguments. Don't make the mistakes I did. Get rid of the problem fast. We were very lucky the employee who had been strangled didn't sue us for creating a hostile work environment.

Word on the street evidently spread, because soon afterwards, I began getting phone calls from Davy Jones' former employers telling me he was fired from his last five positions because of his violent reactions when challenged. I was told of one incident of Davy Jones' hitting the owner of the largest ad agency in Chicago. Why didn't his references tell me this earlier? Too little, too late.

So how does one handle a problem like this? Bruce Fuller gives us 3 steps to handling problem employees and the mock scenarios to justify your actions:

"This is very easy Brad. Document, document, document.

You must clearly state the problem in your documentation outlining the problem, the resolution, and the time period when the situation will be reviewed. Most importantly it must have the signature of the manager and the offending employee. If the employee is unwilling to sign the document, read it to him/her in front of a witness and have the witness sign confirming it was read to the offender.

I find that generally there are three documents needed as follows:

#1 First Offense Documentation

It has been brought to our attention that Little Johnny has been eating other people's lunches, which has been confirmed by our security camera in the fridge. Little Johnny has been told that this is a no-no and that if he continues to eat other people's ham and cheese he faces disciplinary action up to and including termination. We will review his lunch habits in one week.

#2 Second Offense Documentation

(appears that letter #1 was ineffective in changing the behavior) 
It has been two days since letter #1 and Little Johnny continues to eat other people's lunches. While we value Lil' J as an employee, this annoying habit must stop immediately or he will face disciplinary action up to and including termination. 
There will be no more warnings.

#3 Final Documentation and Termination Notice

This is a notice of termination of Little Johnny effective immediately. Despite two previous warnings he continues to eat people's lunches out of the fridge.

Don't forget that a bad employee attitude can be addressed in the same manner. No need to tolerate someone who poisons the work atmosphere.

The biggest problem is that managers delay starting the documentation process. The sooner the better."

Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment points out that when fairy tales have the moral lesson removed, we learn nothing about cause and effect. Taking responsibility for our choices is what adulthood is about. We now have an entire generation that thinks Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid and Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame both have happy endings. Haven't you noticed? No one does anything wrong these days, it's just shades of misunderstanding. You still get a trophy for showing up and CEO's get millions despite driving a company into the ground. This seems to be the result of removing the lessons of responsibility that makes a civilization last.

These stories are not generational either. I have many a story about older, wiser and seasoned individuals with no moral compass. The coming years are going to get sticky. Word on the street is that the economy is getting bumpy and unemployment is going to jump. Many of the larger firms are adding more counsel in anticipation of the glut of lawsuits coming down the road. After all, it is easier to sue than get another job. If America is to be competitive globally, we're all going to have to grow up.

Most employees believe that if their work is exemplary their behavior will be tolerated. "Why are you concerned with my lateness, I met my sales quota?" or "What's the big deal, I stay late every night?" and my favorite, "You have no idea what it takes to do this job." (I do, so stop). These and many more have been thrown in my face. I guess they're right - I just don't get it. But at the end of my life, we'll compare resumes. I don't reward mediocrity in myself or in others, and neither should you.

When employees are coddled along and treated to soft management, they learn nothing. It's not personal, it's business. When someone is re-positioned and told why, they're given the chance to improve. Increase performance, or change professions. One employee whom I fired ran into me years later. He thanked me for firing him; it was the push he needed to wake up. After that, he took his jobs seriously, eventually winding up at MTV. "I wouldn't have found my way if you hadn't fired me. Thank you."

Over the years I have developed my own system for figuring out who is a bad apple. My system would be frowned upon by most HR professionals and employment lawyers. I don't care. It is my company, not yours and when shareholders want maximum return, it is even more important that I do my own due diligence - my way.

Always remember, people exaggerate the truth on their resumes. Look for someone who seems to have built a career slowly and strategically. Job-hopping may be trendy, but it still smells of "Can't get along with others." Double check the references, and be creative when asking questions, after all, this person is an investment in the success of your company. We don't buy things, we buy experiences.

When confronted with a bad seed, document every mistake. Act fast, and keep your company lean. Do not act from fear, act from a strategic position. You'll be happy and so will your staff. Winners like to work with winners.

Thanks for reading,


Brad Szollose
Global Management & Leadership Development Consultant
Author  •  Workshop Facilitator  •  Executive Advisor  •  Keynote Speaker

May I suggest the following publications?

A Manager's Guide to Employment Law: How to Protect Your Company and Yourself by Dana Muir

A Manager's Guide to Employment Law will help managers make day-to-day decisions on how best to manage their employees and handle issues of legal liability. Expert author Dana Muir identifies the subtle and unnecessary mistakes managers make that cause legal headaches and shows how becoming familiar with basic principles of employment law will enable them to develop an internal compass to help make the right decisions. Each chapter focuses on legal concepts of broad application in today's workplace, providing real examples of problems managers face and offering strategies for addressing those problems.

The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim

Wicked stepmothers and beautiful princesses ...magic forests and enchanted towers ...little pigs and big bad wolves ...Fairy tales have been an integral part of childhood for hundreds of years. But what do they really mean? In this award-winning work of criticism, renowned psychoanalyst Dr. Bruno Bettelheim presents a thought provoking and stimulating exploration of the best-known fairy stories. He reveals the true content of the stories and shows how children can use them to cope with their baffling emotions and anxieties.

The 5 Richest Payoffs for Fired CEOs
by Michael Brush

Although I am not a Bernie Sanders fan, this article on his site is thought provoking.

Brad Szollose Bio:


Who Is Brad Szollose?: 

Cofounder of Another Big Production. Host of Awakened Nation™. Award-Winning Author. Creative Director. Leader. Visionary. TEDxSpeaker. Web Pioneer. C-Level Executive.

First things, first. How do you say Szollose?
It’s pronounced zol-us.

From founding partner and CMO of K2 Design, Inc. the first Digital Agency to go public on NASDAQ to international leadership development expert, Brad Szollose has worked with household names like MasterCard, American Management Association and Tony Robbins, to create leadership training programs for a new generation.

As an award-winning creative director, he has been the creative force behind hundreds of high-end corporate events, personal and consumer brands, and website launches. Brad is the recipient of the Corporate Identity Design Award and the Axiom Business Book Award along with various awards for website and print design.

As a C-Level executive at K2, his unique management model was awarded the Arthur Andersen New York Enterprise Award for Best Practices in Fostering Innovation Amongst Employees (Workforce Culture).

Today, the world’s leading business publications seek out Brad’s insights on next-generation leadership development, branding and modern Management Strategies, and he has been featured (both print and online versions) in Forbes, Inc., Advertising Age, USA Today, New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, International Business Times, Le Journal du Dimanche (France), and The Hindu Business Line to name a few, along with television, radio and podcast appearances on CGTN America, CBS, Roku Network and other media outlets.

Brad continues to challenge the status quo with his new book, Liquid Leadership 2.0, and his new podcast, Awakened Nation.

After 35 years in New York City, he now calls Las Vegas home. In his free time, he enjoys hiking in the mountains, working Star Trek and Dune quotes into everyday conversation, and painting and drawing the stunning landscapes of the American Southwest.