How To Handle That Employee You Simply Cannot Fire

That employee is you. But forget about you for a minute. Think about a key employee who is integral to your firm, because this isn't going to work if we think about you, first.

They are integral to your firm, but maybe they don't fit the culture, maybe they aren't all that collaborative, or maybe there is some ethical issue that troubles you. Regardless, you don't feel like you can fire them—at least quite yet—because of the effect it would have on your client base or some other team members or maybe even the ownership structure.

So this is a person that you would like to fire if you could, but you can't. You are obligated to do your level best to find a solution. Yes, you could isolate their influence but you'd rather not. Instead, you're thinking big and aiming for a complete resolution. A total turnaround. A situation that you look back on some day and feel like you rescued a very worthy contributor.

That's the question: how would you manage a situation with an employee who could not be fired, for whatever reason? My guess is that you'd depend on some combination of these things:

  • Coaching. Bill Gates said that "everyone needs a coach" and I think he's right. We can't get outside ourselves and see things the way they really are. We need someone else's eyes on our situation. There are all sorts of business coaches out there.
  • Clear Communication and Expectations. You'd need to provide this constantly so that no difficult conversation—either way—was off limits. The things that frustrate you the most are the things that slowly simmer until they explode with all sorts of unintended consequences.
  • Truth Seeking Support Team. You'd need to surround this person with respectful truth speakers. Who were self-aware enough to be observant and who were courageous enough to do something with those observations.
  • Medication. I'm not kidding. You don't have the right or the ability to recommend medication to that troubled employee, but that might be part of the solution, which should be something they arrive at on their own. I've tried a bunch of things as I've struggled with depression my entire life. In the end, the treatments were all worse than the disease for me, so I went off all of them, but everybody is different and we need to respect those distinctions. I've also worn out three therapists, and those fine folks did help quite a bit.
  • Sabbatical. Why not? Everyone needs a break and there really ought to be an enforced sabbatical for everyone on your staff. Especially the ones in the trenches who are dealing with clients every day.
  • Family/Friends. What happens at work is often an extension of what's happening in someone's personal life. We'd like people to separate the two, but that's a bit unrealistic. Does your problem employee have friends and family who understand him or her? Are they viewed as on that person's team?
  • Expectations. Don’t ask them to do things for which they are poorly equipped. I don't really care what the job description says. Sure, some people can step into a suit that wasn't tailored for them, but it's exhausting. All great sports coaches adapt to the players they have, and maybe that's what the situation calls for.
  • Grace. Yep. Just plain ol' grace. You and I can both think back to times when someone extended grace to you when you didn't really deserve it (that's why it's called "grace"). Maybe the leash is really tight and you're looking for any excuse to write them off even further. But what if you paused for a minute and tried to see things from their vantage point? What would you want someone else to do if the roles were reversed?

Okay. Now we're ready for the real point of this exercise. What if that problem employee was you? And you obviously couldn't be fired because the firm would no longer exist?

It is possible that maybe you aren't a fit for this principal role, and there's no shame in admitting that and slowly unwinding what you've built. But the chances are that we're just stuck with you.

So how about a coach, a difficult conversation or two, a better support team, some meds, more time with friends and family, a sabbatical, designing your job to be a better fit for your strengths, and a little heaping of grace on top of that.

You're probably salvageable. At least we have to try.

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