Most of us have experienced a “less than stable” employee during the course of our career(s). You know the type I’m talking about. At the risk of getting myself in trouble, allow me to generalize the traits associated with these types of folks. They tend to be unable to manage stress/crisis, are almost always narcissistic, almost never to blame for any mistake. They tend to believe that they are extremely well respected by their peers and strive to form a “pet” bond with senior leadership – those that they believe are smart enough to truly understand his/her genius. Finally, in my experience, they are almost always extremely highly educated – the majority of which have at least a Masters degree and many a PhD in something (though rarely related to the actual job they perform).
So it is with this as the backdrop that I share my experience in terminating one such employee, who I will name Sybil. Both because it is highly appropriate as well as fictitious.
Sybil had worked on a government contract for many years. While possessing a PhD, her job was to provide mid-level budget analysis – technically well below her knowledge/skill level. Like most folks of her ilk, she likely took this job for one simple reason – to be recognized as the “cream of the crop” relative to her peers – many of which did not even have a Bachelors degree.
Given the growing nature of the contract, it was determined that an on-site company Task Lead was required to support the staff. The contract Program Manager (PM) selected an employee who was extremely well suited/positioned for this role and was well respected by her client(s). The problem was, it wasn’t Sybil. Upon notifying the team of the new Task Lead’s role – which included having on-site staff report to her for all company/administrative issues (amongst other things), Sybil began “acting out.” There had never been personnel issues on the contract since its inception. This began to change. Suddenly there were communication issues, Task management issues, client issues, etc. All of which were created by Sybil. You know what they say “Show me a great firefighter and I’ll show you an arsonist.” Nothing could be truer. Those who are first to identify and highlight crisis and then single-handedly attempt to resolve it, are almost always the true source of the “fire.” This was certainly the case with Sybil.
Sybil’s PM attempted several times to talk with her – explaining why the decision was made to select the other employee as the Task Lead, and asking her to do her best to get along and perhaps even mentor the young Task Lead. Despite his greatest efforts, Sybil just could not make it work. Finally, a meeting with the company President was required – one last ditch effort to resolve the growing contract issues - the majority of which were directly related to Sybil. When hearing of the meeting, Sybil called the president and – in the most professional, collegial and gentle way possible – explained that she was committed to resolving this situation no matter what it took.
Upon entering the room, Sybil glanced around and saw the PM, the President, and the HR Director. Now, it is generally understood that when a meeting includes these types of folks, things are serious. With this understanding, one would think that being on your “best behavior” is a must. Well, Sybil was not just anyone. After describing the purpose of the meeting the president explained that the company’s number one objective was to “seek first to understand” in the interest of fairness, and that he wanted her to tell her side of the story. This is where the name “Sybil” becomes more than just a name.
Without missing a beat, Sybil engaged like a lioness protecting her cub (one in the same). Rather than calmly explain her side, she began to raise her voice, point her finger at the PM and call him several “less than professional” names. As is endemic of these types of staff, nothing was her fault, she was a victim (oh yeah, martyrdom is also a symptom), and wanted the PM to be written up. Despite attempting to calm her down many times, she would have none of it. She was right, the company was wrong, and that was it – period.
The president, recognizing that the situation was devolving quickly, called an end to the meeting. He explained that he would review all the information and would make a decision on next steps in the next few days. She seemed satisfied by this (again, narcissism is key here – she was completely convinced that senior leadership would see the situation for what it was - not her fault, etc.).
After deliberation, it was clear that Sybil needed to go – for lots of reasons. Not the least of which was her approach, lack of professionalism, and most importantly, because it was clearly the right thing to do. To ensure the company’s “back” was covered, Sybil was first given a “performance letter” – affording her an opportunity to change her ways. The letter specified a finite set of performance criteria – all of which needed to be met for her to continue employment with the company.
Upon receiving the letter, Sybil left. She just picked up her toys and walked out of the government building – dropping a comment or two to the government leadership on the way out the door to be sure they understood that she was being unfairly persecuted by the company, etc. Her next move was to resign from the company (rather than accepting the performance improvement letter and acknowledging that improvements were needed). Upon hearing of her resignation, the president was both relieved and excited about the way ahead – being able to focus his time and attention on other company issues rather than on her. He was 100% confident in both the way this issue was approached, as well as the result. Case closed. Or was it?
It was about a week later when the threatening emails/voicemails started. Sybil would not go down without a fight (remember that she was the one that decided to resign). Long story short, defensive litigation plans were prepared (though thankfully not needed). While no litigation was ultimately pursued, what was required was not one, or two, but THREE calls with the State Unemployment Office. Believe it or not, despite resigning, Sybil actually wanted the company to support her right to unemployment – saying she was let go. Now, it may have been easier to simply go along here, allow her to collect her unemployment quietly and let the company move on. That said, after consideration, the president decided that he just couldn’t do it. It was about more than right or wrong. It was about sending a message to his people that he was willing to go the distance to be sure that the “Sybils” in this world got only what they earned. After several hearings, Sybil’s case for unemployment was ultimately rejected and she was – finally – gone. Never to be heard from again.
As managers and leaders, we will all have to handle a “Sybil Situation” at some time in our career (sometimes more than once). What we decide is not necessarily as important as HOW we execute our decision. In this situation, the president handled things well. Here are a few things that he did that I want to pass on for your consideration:
Approach the situation objectively and dispassionately – seeking first to understand and resist (at all costs) allowing things to become personal or emotional
- Once you determine that your manager/PM is in the right – have their back.
Nothing is more important than supporting your managers/leaders (when they are in the right)
Once a decision is made, follow-thru, all the way
It would have been easy to cease and desist once Sybil was gone. The easy way is rarely the right way