Pruning Thorns From Roses – HR’s Role In Managing Disruptive Key Employees

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Organizations face a tough challenge when key employees exhibit disruptive behavior. Also known as topcontributors, these employees possess specialized knowledge or skills that are critical to the success of the business or manage important clients or large accounts that might be lost if they left.

The actions of key employees often have a direct impact on the bottom line. In some cases, particularly in small and medium-sized firms, they can lead to resounding success or business closure.

Disruptive behavior generally falls into two categories: excessive control and disrespectful behavior. Excessive control often manifests as micromanaging or a need to be enmeshed in the minutest detail of delegated work. This behavior disempowers co-workers, stifles creativity and creates an unsatisfactory work environment. Yelling, tantrums, bullying, dereliction of duty and insubordination are examples of disrespectful behavior. Such behavior induces stress, lowers morale, alienates co-workers and customers, increases turnover, and renders teams dysfunctional.

The Wishful Approach
How do managers in your organization respond when they are told the broker managing your largest portfolio cannot keep support staff longer than three months because her constant hovering suffocates them; that your wiz programmer, the person you are depending on to lead the effort in designing your next big product, threw his team into a tizzy when he smashed his blackberry in a fit of fury; or that your world-class, prodigiously talented surgeon has, again, unleashed a profanity-laden tirade on his secretary? The potential impact of workers of this genus exiting the organization sometimes entices management to ignore or make excuses for the inappropriate behavior of top contributors. However, inaction, evasion or wishing poor behavior would resolve itself has a high price tag.

Testifying before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), William L. Bransford, partner in the Washington, D.C., based law firm of Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux & Roth, noted that “inaction is the worst course because future actions to deal with a continuing problem will be more difficult, and avoidance contributes to the workplace and public perception that problem employees are tolerated” (September 7, 2006).

Perceptions of avoidance, or preferential or disparate treatment, detract from management’s credibility. They erode trust, fracture teams, foment disloyalty and can lead to charges of unlawful discrimination. Meanwhile, disruptors continue to plough down the path of destructive behavior.

The Beaten Path
Clear, concise and timely feedback is the starting point in effecting behavior change. HR pros play a germane role in ensuring that management does not fall prey to the aforementioned approach, and when it does, to help extricate itself from its grip. In addition, HR practitioners assist in identifying appropriate corrective or disciplinary measures to achieve the desired results.

A feedback session can be a collegial, sometimes informal, communication of the offensive or inappropriate behavior or action of one employee and the impact it has on others. The offended party or a supervisor can provide the feedback. If done correctly, both parties will leave the meeting with a clear understanding of what would constitute acceptable behavior in the future. If the offender modifies his or her behavior as a result of this initial intervention, you should not call him or her disruptive. This designation is reserved for those with whom supervisors have had a number of unproductive feedback sessions and those your other employees dread to confront.

To resolve the ethical dilemma and morale degradation that overlooked problematic conduct can engender, many courageous managers eventually initiate formal counseling. Verbal and written warnings, as well as a corrective plan that outlines expected behavior and the timeline to achieve it, are common steps in this level of intervention. Sanctions such as demotion, salary reduction, mandatory transfer, removal of privileges, suspension and termination of employment may be necessary in keeping with applicable laws and regulations.

Counseling draws a line in the sand. It sends an unequivocal message to the disruptive employee that the organization will no longer tolerate unacceptable behavior. These employees can be exceptionally frustrating to management and co-workers; therefore, treating them on the basis of lex talionis (the law of retribution) evokes a sense of justice in fellow employees. Whether they change or leave the organization, forcing such disruptors to experience how it feels to have other people bear down on them can be gratifying to their victims and to worn-down management.

On the flip side, the adversarial, threatening, punitive and coercive nature of disciplinary measures may adversely impact many of the very attributes that make your top producers unique and optimally effective. Relentless drive, unwavering commitment, curiosity, passion and courage–the qualities that enable them to harvest their genius–can be quelled by an adversarial relationship with management. This would not pose much of a concern if you were dealing with your average employee. But the organization suffers when top contributors are demotivated. In worst cases, the aforementioned qualities morph into a counterfeit force that is actively directed against the establishment.

Whatever the underlying cause of disruptive behavior might be, ego plays a role in its emergence and over time, dominance. In the right amount, ego enables us to achieve a healthy level of confidence and self-awareness. Too little of it produces indifference, fear and insecurity. Too much gives rise to arrogance, over-ambition and a bloated sense of superiority. In the words of David Marcum and Steven Smith, partners at the management consulting firm MarcumSmith, LC, and authors of Egonomics, “Ego’s power is pervasive and relentless, but never neutral in how it affects our performance” (Marcum & Smith, 2007). According to this breakthrough work, ego is the unseen profit-and-loss line item that influences individual and organizational success the most. Therefore, managing its intense power and balancing it with humility, veracity and curiosity should be a priority for workers and their employers (Marcum & Smith, 2006).

Discipline can be an effective ego buster, but because of the nature of excessive ego, the counselee is unlikely to listen and cooperate, let alone deal effectively with an inflated sense of humiliation. Since insecurity and low self-esteem can also lead to disruptive behavior (e.g., difficulty letting go), punishment is unlikely to instill confidence.

The Road Less Traveled
Formal counseling (being loosely used to refer to an organization’s formal, progressive disciplinary process) in the workplace works. But in many cases, it works like the antibiotic that kills good bacteria along with the bad or the cancer treatment that destroys ailing and healthy cells alike. What if there was a more targeted approach? An approach that achieves the desired result without the threat, fear and humiliation that counseling connotes? An approach that provides benefits that serve employees both in their professional and personal lives?

Coaching is a remarkably under-tapped personal and professional development and behaviormodification process. Done properly, it is an effective, nonthreatening, nonpunitive way of enabling individuals to discover and develop their strengths, come to grips with their opportunity areas or weaknesses, and take carefully outlined steps to address the weaknesses.

Coaching is less encumbered by the ego factor in that the coach provides guidance and support in a collegial relationship. It nurtures and preserves the flourishing rose (i.e., the strengths of the coachee) as it seeks out buds and prunes thorns and overgrowths. This process promotes self-awareness and selfleadership while preserving the self-esteem of the coachee. For this reason, coaching is usually better received than counseling.

In a milestone research on the impact of coaching in organizations, authors found average returns of 5.7 times the initial investment (McGovern et al, 2001). This study of 100 executives in the United States between 1996 and 2000 found additional “intangible” benefits to the business. They include: 77 percent improvement in working relationships with direct reports. 71 percent improvement in relationships with immediate supervisors. 67 percent improvement in teamwork. 63 percent improvement in working relationships with peers. 61 percent improvement in job satisfaction.

The evolution of HR provides an insight into the limited use of this approach in today’s workplace. For decades, the function was essentially nonstrategic and reactive. Problem-solving took precedence over prevention. In contrast with the preponderance of employee-relations expertise, only a few organizations offered, mostly through third-party consultants, personalized coaching to employees. Even so, coachingwas primarily reserved for executives, particularly those with identified performance or behavioral deficits. This trend is slowly changing. HR can enhance the effectiveness of coaching by increasing the pace ofthis change. We can start by ensuring that in managing disruptive key employees, coaching precedes counseling. We should capture and share successes to demonstrate potential benefits to all levels of employees. We must deflect the notion that the purpose of coaching is only or primarily remedial. In fact, coaching is one of the most effective ways to improve performance and productivity.

In one of the early empirical studies of the effectiveness of coaching, three Baruch College researchers found that while training alone produced a 22 percent increase in productivity, the addition of post-training coaching increased productivity 88 percent (Olivero, Bane & Kopelman, 1997). One reason coaching is reserved for leadership is that it is relatively expensive. This is largely because most organizations lack the capacity to offer the service internally. While an external resource is perceived to be neutral, this does not mean properly equipped internal coaches will be less objective or untrustworthy.

Internal coaches will have to prove their mettle by demonstrating that they can offer the same level of support, insight and confidentiality as their external counterparts. HR should lead the way in building this capacity. Though employees from sundry backgrounds can become effective coaches, not everyone is cut out for the job. A thorough screening process that includes an interview and a role-play can help identify the right candidates. Subsequently, selected candidates should be appropriately trained. A few reputable colleges and consultancies offer certification programs. Take advantage of the program that is right for your organization. Because business and personal life affect each other and are in many ways inseparable, seek out programs that offer training in whole-life coaching. HR should not wait for things to go awry before offering coaching. The service should be established in the organization as a way to develop talent, enhance leadership skills, identify, acknowledge and resolve weaknesses, and ultimately, enable employees to be optimally successful.

Be All and End All
Coaching is not the panacea for all disruptive key employees. Indeed, you will likely encounter employees who reject the intervention or refuse to cooperate in the coaching process. These same employees are unlikely to accept discipline. Establishing coaching as a developmental and positive intervention in your organization, and carefully explaining the pros and cons of coaching and counseling, might help manage their doubt or obstinacy.

Even in organizations where coaching becomes the preferred crucible for effecting behavior change, there will still be those rare occasions when discipline is appropriate and inescapable. Assault is one example.

Coaching tools do not resolve psychological disorders, mental disabilities and physiological impairments that might have behavioral implications. Those should be referred to experts on the subjects. However, because coaching typically involves a thorough assessment of the coachee’s strengths and opportunity areas, or at least an assessment of the focal behavior being developed or modified, it can be useful in determining when clinical or psychological intervention should be sought.

Managing disruptive employees is an onerous responsibility. The task takes on a higher degree of complexity when the employees involved are critical to the success of your organization. While managers might be tempted to look the other way, doing so will hurt co-workers, customers and, ultimately, the bottom line.

HR leaders play a vital role in establishing clear and legally compliant disciplinary processes. These measures are typically progressive, with consequences ranging from verbal warning to termination of employment. However, in situations where key employees have blind spots that might contribute to their behavioral problem or have difficulty balancing ego with humility, the threat or execution of disciplinary measures might exacerbate their behavior or cause them to react in other ways that negatively affect their effectiveness. This is particularly true when they possess highly sought-after skills.

Coaching is a personal and professional development process. If the primary goal of counseling or discipline is to modify behavior, coaching aims for the same result without the threat of punishment. A coachee has the opportunity to uncover blind spots, learn the impact of his or her behavior on others and discover the root cause of the disruptive behavior in a nonpunitive, nonjudgmental, dignified manner.

Coaching is also effective in identifying and developing latent skill sets. In many companies, it is the preferred method for developing future leaders. As HR professionals, we are strategically positioned to assist our organizations to explore the power of coaching. The next time a manager approaches you to discuss formal counseling for a disruptive key employee, try coaching.


Marcum, D., & Smith, S. (2007). Egonomics. United States: Simon and Schuster.
Marcum, D., & Smith, S. (2006). Profit and loss formula: A whitepaper on eliminating the costs of ego and making it our most valuable asset. Retrieved from
McGovern, J., Lindemann, M., Vergara, M., Murphy, S., Barker, L., & Warrenfeltz, R. (2001). Maximizing
the impact of executive coaching: Behavioral change, organizational outcomes, and return on investment.
The Manchester Review, 6, 1, 3-11.
Olivero, G., Bane, D., & Kopelman, R. E. (1997). Executive coaching as a transfer of training tool: Effects of productivity in a public agency. Public Personnel Management, 55(11), 461-69.

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