When a Star Employee Turns into a Bad Apple

During the past 18 ½ years running our 1-800-GOT-JUNK? business, we have had to hire hundreds of team members for our growing company. Inadvertently, we also have had to fire and let many of them go.

Recently, we had a big learning experience that I did not foresee. Despite our extensive experience hiring great people and having an incredible team culture, this past summer we had a big wakeup call which turned into a monumental learning opportunity for our executive team and our teams too.

One of our team members, we’ll call him Patrick, came to work for us over three years ago. He was a stellar employee and great team member. He showed up early for work to help get the trucks ready for the day, and he often went over and above in our operations to make things better for our team members and our clients and customers too. Little did we know that things were changing and would cause a terrible ripple effect that would damage our team culture, hurt our operations and cause a steady leak in our revenue that we were not aware of.

We knew he had been going through some very challenging times in his personal life. He assured us he was okay and that it wasn’t affecting his work or job performance. We did notice that he wasn’t himself, but we felt confident that what he was telling us was the truth and we were to trust him.

Then we started hearing whispers around his lack of performance and cutting corners, but our team members were not coming to us with complaints. They were simply whispers we were hearing through the grapevine without any solid proof or concrete evidence.

It wasn’t until there was an incident that blew the entire lid off of what was truly happening in our business and in our culture.

Without going into too much detail to protect the integrity of the team and his identity, a falling out took place and we needed to get to the bottom of what was truly happening, and fast.

I contacted each team member privately and asked them to be honest with me about what they were experiencing in the field with this employee. It didn’t take long for them to reveal our worst nightmare. Every single team member was negatively impacted by Patrick’s behaviour and choices. They each felt that he had changed so much that they did not want to work with him.

I was devastated. How could this have happened? How could this have happened on our watch? Didn’t we have a great team culture? Didn’t they feel safe coming to me or my business partner to share what they had been experiencing?

I had to ensure that everybody on the team, including Patrick, would be respected through this challenging time and that we would support each individual through this experience, including Patrick.

A meeting was set with Patrick and the truth about what was revealed to us was shared. He was apologetic. He knew he wasn’t himself. He knew what he was doing was wrong and that he lost his passion for the job and the people. He wanted a way out but didn’t know how to ask for it.

We mutually agreed it was time to part ways, that he needed to find something he loved and something he could invest himself in wholeheartedly. We provided him with a generous severance package and began to unpack the lessons learned from this experience.

We apologized to our team members and asked them for their feedback and suggestions to ensure they felt supported and could come to us when there as a problem.

Here is what we learned:

1. Invite honesty and vulnerability: When someone is struggling in their personal life, it will undoubtedly affect their work. Our role as executives is to ensure they feel supported and can come to us when things start to derail. Having a clear process for them to reach out privately is vitally important. There must be a safe and private way for them to tell the truth without fear.

2. Support all parties involved: It’s great to tell your team members they can come to you when there’s a problem, but there has to be a safe way for them to come to you too. They have to feel safe that they will not be seen as someone who can’t be trusted. How will you protect them, and all parties involved, when there is a problem? What systems do you have in place to ensure they can be honest without the reciprocations?

3. Meet your people where they are: Things will go awry in your business, and your people will struggle. How can you meet them where they are, meaning how can you support them through what they are telling you they are struggling with? When someone is no longer a fit in your company, how can you meet your team where they are to hear them, learn from them, and then take action?

4. Learn from your own mistakes: No matter how long we’ve been in business, we’re all still learning. Sometimes, we often get caught in the complacency trap or we think that all things are running smoothly, until we find out they are not. What can you learn from mistakes that are affecting your operations, your people and your business?

5. Listen to your team’s suggestions for improvement: Give your team members a place to share their suggestions for improvement. Give them a voice so they can be part of the solution. They may offer insights that brings a new perspective or an idea that can improve the business. Be open to listening to what they have to say and take action to improve.

It was not a pleasant or easy experience for any of us to go through this past summer. It deeply affected our team members and through it all, we learned to be open, trust in each other when things are not going the way they should, and to be there to support each other when it’s time to make tough decisions.

Our team culture is stronger than it has ever been because of this experience. A recent system-wide culture survey ranked our culture as one of the best system-wide. Had we not gone through this experience, who knows how long the dissemination of what we had built was going to continue. We feel fortunate that it stopped when it did and we all came through this experience with better systems and practices to ensure that all team members feel supported and heard, and that when it’s time for someone to leave, the process is made much easier for them.

What about you? Have you had a similar experience? What did you learn? How did your experience improve your company culture? Please share. I’d love to hear!

Listen to the podcast version of this story on my Speaking of Business show. Listen here and subscribe to the podcast on the channel of your choice.

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