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How to Deal with High-Performing “Bad Actors” in Your Organization

Posted by Lauren Kendall on January 24, 2018
Originally written on LinkedIn by Dave Melville, CEO & Founder of The Bowdoin Group.

Whenever harassment cases hit the news, we’re all left wondering how we’d handle that situation if it happened within our own companies and hoping we’ve done enough to prevent it from happening in the first place. In the corporate world, savvy HR teams often have unique views on how they’ve combatted this type of behavior in the past – whether to nip it in the bud or deal with the aftermath. In any case, HR plays a pivotal role in ensuring that “bad actors” are held accountable for their actions.

The reality is that the path forward isn’t always black and white, especially when you have to deal with the fallout. To get some tips on how best to handle these situations, we asked several senior HR executives how they deal with high-performing bad actors in their organizations.

One Head of HR described a situation where the CEO of a large, publicly-traded company was accused of sexual harassment.  A thorough investigation found that the incident was irrefutable. Faced with the issue of guiding the business through this traumatic event, the Head of HR said, “I had no choice. I had to act.”  After a heated debate at the board level, the CEO was fired, which ultimately led to the sale of the company. When asked afterwards by a senior player on the board, “Was it worth it?”, the HR leader replied, “The CEO created this situation. It’s unfortunate that we all have to deal with the consequences.”

Hats off to this HR leader who knew that the effects of this incident would be big and felt throughout the organization, and took action anyway.  In our conversations with HR leaders, we learned that situations like these are all too common.

If a similar situation happens to you, what should you do?

  • Act swiftly and decisively – Every person that we spoke to agreed that addressing issues head-on and early is critical – the head in the sand method simply does not work. Issues that are not addressed can have a ripple effect of negative ramifications, including a weakened culture, dwindling morale, employee turnover, and more.
  • Get the facts – One study found that 75% of workplace harassment victims experienced retaliation when they spoke up, so recognize the courage of those who come forward.[i] When you see smoke rising, trust your gut and get the facts from those involved.  This can include collecting information from interviews with individuals involved and eyewitnesses, email threads, employee surveys, footage, and anything else that can provide insight into what happened.
  • The punishment should fit the crime – When an incident happens, follow-up actions should be commensurate with the offense.  As an HR leader, you know that determining appropriate punishments is an art, not a science, and it’s up to you to use your best judgement. Most organizations don’t have formal policies for every incident that they will face, so lean on your team to come up with consequences that feel right. Don’t forget to adjust those policies to ensure the same incident doesn’t happen again.
  • Don’t let the person’s performance cloud your judgement – Surprisingly, not a single person we interviewed addressed the high performing nuance. The undertone spoke volumes – no matter how influential a person is, bad actors should never be tolerated. This can be difficult for some functions like leadership or sales where the loss of one high performer can leave a big hole. Stay focused on what matters and choose to protect your employees, culture, and the reputation you’ve worked so hard to build, not the bad actor.

Dealing with bad actors is always difficult, no matter the situation.  If you handle the situation right, you gain more respect from your employees and preserve the integrity of your organization. Keep in mind that no one is above the consequences, regardless of seniority, success, or subject matter expertise.