I’m a business consultant and speaker. Not a lawyer. Not an accountant. Not a social worker. However, I’m a very compassionate person who time-and-time again is asked by clients to deal with entitled employees who were once stars within the organization. So, my advice is practical and not labor-law driven. My guidance is geared toward forcing employees out of denial and choosing what road they’re going to follow. I have to brag that my success rate is about 50 percent, with some staying and some leaving.

So how do star employees go bad? That’s a complicated question but I think it ultimately boils down to entitled employees believing their own propaganda and denial. I also think such employees may tend to be sacred cows within the organization and rarely are initial performance issues nipped in the bud. Instead, such issues build over a period of time and the lack of attention allows the problem to fester and grow.

The root causes for poor conduct can vary from poor health, problems at home, refusal to change, fighting technology, jealousy, etc. The list can go on and on, but the bottom line is the individual’s performance is not acceptable and getting worse. We aren’t doing them or us a favor by not addressing the issue. I also think as employers we get attached to people and are slow to correct a long-term employment relationship. That’s where the consultant comes in. To be the ‘bad guy’ and to offer fresh eyes as the consultant who has no emotional attachment to the situation. 

Normally, my approach is to meet with the person one-on-one and discuss the state of affairs. I don’t see my role as to fire or keep the person. I merely want to find out what’s going on and get the person to decide what he or she is willing to do. After some friendly chit chat, I go right at it. My favorite question is, “what’s your current plan regarding employment here?” The response is somewhat universal with “what do you mean?” Next, I simply reply with the facts of what has been happening and again ask what the individual’s plan is. My response is something like this, “well, your jobs have been losing money, you’ve been complaining to others about how bad it is to work here; I just wonder what you’re hoping to accomplish?”

Do you think the boss is going to go home tonight and tell the spouse that they’ll have to sell their house so you can keep your job? Look, your job performance is down, you’re bad mouthing the company, what’s your end game?” About half the time, I get something like ‘I don’t want to lose my job or you can’t fire me.’ My reply is simply, “so what do you think will ultimately happen if you continue to bad mouth the place and not do a good job? Your employer and I want to make this work but something has to change. What do you suggest?”

At this point about half the people come around and we begin to develop a plan. The ones that don’t come around ultimately will have to go, but it’s their choice. Making people face reality is the first step in potentially saving them.

I found another tactic that works well is to give an underperforming employee a couple hours off and let them think about whether they want to continue to work there or not.  Simple say, “Joe, this isn’t working. Take the rest of the afternoon off and let me know in the morning what you want to do. We have a lot invested in you and I’m more than willing to pay you to think about it, but doing what we are doing now does not seem to be working.”

Being in denial is the refusal to accept the facts and situation. Ultimately, this isn’t good for the company or employee. Denial is simply a form of lying to ourselves. Human nature uses denial as a defense mechanism. It can help us maintain sanity when all around is falling apart. However, denial becomes very unhealthy when it causes us to avoid problems that are potentially harmful to us and keeps us from correcting the situation. Denial can also cause us to already be in a really bad situation before we’re able to recognize and correct it. When dealing with employees in denial situations, realize the problem is already greater than they may be aware of.  If not, the employee probably would have already tried to change his or her behavior.

Suppose if by some magic miracle you could wake up tomorrow and everything would be different. What would that look like? Is it feasible or are you chasing rainbows? Only by dealing with truths and facts can you hope to succeed. None of us like conflict but when allowed to fester over time, the problem usually gets worse. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Because something is unpleasant to address does not mean it’s something you should not do or it will be as bad as you think it will be. Good leadership requires we address such issues to protect our employees, and at times, save them from themselves.