Workplace culture is a delicate thing -- it's hard to build, easy to lose.
High performers are the centerpiece of any great culture, but what do you do when you have a high performer who is toxic and actually killing your culture despite performing and producing at a high level? How do you deal with that?
It's a textbook business school question with a real life answer that comes out of M&S Centerless Grinding Inc., in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia.
A toxic presence with a bullying attitude
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, owner John Shegda had a problem: the most productive worker in his company, a star performer who led three other highly performing workers, was also a toxic presence with a bullying attitude that others in the organization went out of their way to avoid. Despite a great deal of coaching and work, the situation wasn't getting better.
Shegda described what happened at his factory:
He hired the man in the mid 2000s.
"There was always an issue with his level of respect. He had a bullyish attitude," Shegda said. "He'd tell an edgy joke that you weren't sure was a joke, just to get under someone's skin."
Even so, he was a good worker, and so he stayed.
By 2011, Shegda had begun thinking more carefully about company values. The company drafted a pamphlet of values and held weekly meetings to discuss them.
Through the years, Shegda would take the man aside and try to coach him, but it didn't stick."
How one leader stepped up to the problem
The problem here is that many organizations avoid dealing with this kind of problem because they get addicted to the production that the toxic star performer brings to the table. They allow the company culture to be ripped apart because they get blinded by the output of their toxic star and place that above everything else.
What's an owner, a manager, a leader to do?
Here's what owner John Shegda did, as The Inquirer describes it:
By the summer of 2014 ... the situation had degenerated so much that a group of workers switched their lunch breaks so they wouldn't have to be in the lunch room at the same time with the high performer and his team.
With 29 workers in 12,000 square feet, it became increasingly obvious to Shegda that the man and the company's values were in conflict, despite his productivity.
So, after months of worrying about it, in October 2014, he gave the man a generous severance and let him go, along with two others. One person on the four-man crew remained, a relatively new hire."
Addition by subtraction
This is a gutsy move that a lot of managers simply would not have made. They would have been more focused on their bottom line numbers, and the output of the toxic high performer, than with the impact the man's personality had on everyone else in the workforce.
In some cases, the end of this story isn't pretty because the high performer goes and all that great production goes along with them. Happily, it didn't quite go that way at M&S Centerless Grinding.
Shegda says the company, which grinds metals and polymers to the sub-micron level for such products as bearings in space vehicles and locking pins in cardiovascular valve clippings, measures its productivity in sales shipped per direct labor hour, meaning the hours of people working on the shop floor. The statistic had been running at $85 to $90 an hour.
In November, the next month, sales per hour rose to $123 - that's without three of the factory's most productive workers.
"He and the others were culturally cancerous," Shegda said. "Instantly, the mood of the entire company lifted."
You can't let toxic people infect everyone else
Now, sales didn't stay at that elevated level. They dropped back a bit in the following months, but Shegda says that sales per direct labor hour are still 13 percent better than when the toxic high performer and his two teammates were shown the door. It's classic addition by subtraction.
So, what's the moral of this story?
It's this: You can't build a strong culture if you let toxic employees hang around and impact everyone else. Worse yet is when they are high performers, because a failure to act simply shows the rank-and-file that culture doesn't really matter as long as the bottom line is good.
Is that the kind of message you want to send to your organization?
Yes, culture is a delicate thing, but if you're a leader, you have the ability to show how important it is -- even when it means dumping a toxic high performer.
Are you willing to do that? You won't ever have a strong and powerful culture unless you are willing to take that step.
Editor’s Note: The Talent Insider blog is fueled by Checkster, and Checkster has great tools — like the Reference Checkup, the Interview Checkup, and the 360 Checkup — that can help you make better talent decisions as you build a better workplace team and culture.