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Photograph credit: The Guardian

When High Performers Behave Badly

Most people will remember the ‘fracas’ that arose early last year when popular television show host, Jeremy Clarkson, allegedly punched a producer of Top Gear after failing to have a hot steak delivered to him after a day of filming. At the time, everyone had an opinion as to what the BBC should do about the situation, with Prime Minister David Cameron even weighing in saying that Clarkson was a “huge success” and that he would be disappointed if Top Gear didn’t continue. Even our own contributor, Helen Carter, weighed in on the matter, albeit with an extremely different opinion than that of the UK Prime Minister.

Ultimately, sense prevailed and the BBC determined that Clarkson’s conduct warranted termination of his employment. Following the investigation, Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall stated:

“For me a line has been crossed. There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.”

This is a statement which may seem an absurd concept for some managers when issues relating to high performers arise. Why would a manager want to take disciplinary action against an employee who may be largely contributing to the success of the business, especially if that disciplinary action is likely to result in their termination? After all, Clarkson’s sacking was followed by James May and Richard Hammond’s decision not to renew their contracts, ultimately resulting in the demise of Top Gear, BBC’s most popular and highest earning program.

We often have clients come to us with allegations of misconduct against high performing employees. Sometimes it might be a senior manager who bullies and harasses more junior staff and other times it can be that the employee feels that they are such an asset to the business that they think they can work (or not work, as the case may be) whatever hours they like. In most circumstances, managers are reluctant to take any action against the employee for fear that they will ‘rock the boat’ and lose out on the clients or money that the employee brings to the business.

However, what managers often forget to consider is the impact that the behaviour is having on the rest of the organisation. Whilst you and your management team might be willing to put up with bad behaviour, other employees may not. Allowing a high performer to continue their unsatisfactory conduct can have widespread consequences for a business, including:

  • Adverse affect on culture within the business
  • Acceptance from other staff that the behaviour or conduct is acceptable
  • Belief that if another employee exhibits unsatisfactory conduct, no action will be taken against them
  • Risk of losing other employees as a result of their resignation
  • Negative impact on workers’ health and safety
  • Risk of employees becoming disengaged and withdrawn from their work
  • Potential legal proceedings being made against the business including bullying claims

Whilst taking disciplinary action against an employee need not always be termination of their employment, it should be made clear to all employees that they will be expected to comply with high standards and behave appropriately, regardless of their success or monetary contribution to the business. This can be in the form of coaching and counselling, performance improvement plans, training, demotion or warnings.

Unfortunately, many managers will be on notice for some time that their high performers are behaving badly prior to taking action. By this time, the issue may have spiralled out of control and effected the business on such a widespread scale to make the only viable option termination of the employee’s employment.

Taking swift action when an employee starts displaying inappropriate behaviour or attitude is far more likely to successfully reform the employee than sitting back and waiting until someone else complains about their conduct. This means that management are not then put in a difficult position of having to terminate the employment of an employee who contributes greatly to the success of the business.

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