Cancer in the Workplace

It was my first ownership of a business. I had moved to California to take over a failing auto parts distributor, and the deal came with a minority share in the business. I was just 30 years old.

The housecleaning that preceded my arrival included the entire sales team, and I needed knowledgeable parts people fast. I found one in New York, a dealership parts manager who had been fired. Another was from Florida, and a third in New Jersey. All of them worked hard, and we were pretty successful.

After a while, however, I had a new problem. My staff didn’t seem to take me seriously. I knew my stuff technically. Although my management skills were limited, I had trained with a large corporation just a few years before, and understood the basics of working with people. They just didn’t seem to listen to me. Every new process took multiple iterations to get in place, and then they seemed to evaporate again as soon as I turned my back.

It took a long time to learn what the problem was. My business had a cancer. The new York salesman was doing everything in his power to undermine me, but was smart enough to keep it out of sight.

He had purchased a house not far from the business, and every afternoon was a free happy hour at his place. The warehouse workers, salespeople and administrative team were welcome for beers and snacks. Many nights it turned into a BBQ dinner.

While the employees drank beer in his backyard, Mr. NY would hold court. He was a typical salesperson in that he knew how to tell a story, had a great sense of humor, and a keen eye for sarcasm. Unfortunately, my company and I were the target. He could do impressions of me, and scathing analyses of every minor problem in the business, which of course all traced to my incompetence.

It took a long time to find out what was happening. In the workplace he was my most productive employee and, on the surface the most loyal. He was always willing to help, and would pitch in on any job. Once he left the office, however, he became Mr. Hyde, pouring venom on the day’s activities in an hour-by-hour recitation.

Did I fire him? No. I was young and inexperienced. I kept looking for a way to “catch” him doing something wrong at work. I told myself that what he and the other employees did on their own time was none of my business. I was afraid to lose my top producer. He outlasted me at the company, although he never got my job (possibly his objective,)

This is an extreme illustration of a cancerous employee, but milder versions are widespread. It’s not just the employee with a “bad attitude,” the one who doesn’t quite get along with anyone else. It’s the jokester, the stand-up comic, the wit who sees a kind of nasty humor in everything. He raises an eyebrow behind you in a meeting, or stifles a laugh when reading a memo. He (or she) plays to the crowd.

It’s difficult to keep people excited about their work, and easy to drag them down. One cancerous employee can ruin an entire company if left unmolested. It can’t be corrected by warnings or penalties, that only drives it further underground. Like a cancer, it can only be cut out of the system, and the sooner the better.

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