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The toxic employee

An employee in your small business is a capable worker but an increasingly toxic person. Terminating him promises to be a major headache. Then, a local charity calls saying he has applied for a staff position. They want a reference. What do you tell them?

By Bob Giuliano and Connie denBok

Author's photo
Rev. Bob Giuliano is a retired minister who lives in Owen Sound, Ont.

We have kept this man because he has been fruitful and productive. Yet living with him has been a trial. We have had regular performance reviews, annual and semi-annual, where we have discussed his value to our company as well as the fumes he leaves in his wake. We have been honest with each other, as we are with all employees.

He knows that he has been a headache to me. It is not news to him. He obviously has been reading the job boards and is applying for work elsewhere. He is as unhappy with us as we are
with him.

The reference for the charitable organization will be done in consultation with the employee. I want to tell the truth. He may wish to take me off his reference list.

I bring him in. We go over his past job reviews. The good and the bad. I tell him I want him to get the new job because he has clearly been unhappy with us. I tell him that he might benefit from a fresh venue.

After we have talked, I write a reference that speaks of his strengths and contributions to our organization as well as his unhappiness in this job. I send it to the charity, and I send the employee a copy.

Whether the employee gets the new job or not, his productivity will slip. He knows he is “dead in the water.” So I bring in his supervisor, and together we set up a generous severance package and free him to pursue other work. Then we can get on with clearing up the wreckage he has left behind.

Business sometimes comes out clean. Sometimes it doesn’t. But this reference gives me the chance to release this employee whose time with us no longer serves the company or his own happiness.

I am thankful to those who have kept honest records and employee evaluations throughout his tenure with us. Having honest and fair communication all along lays the foundation for tough decisions like this.

If ethical dilemmas are tough to resolve in the church, they don’t get any easier in the marketplace. The God of Tuesday had better be as relevant as the God of Sunday, or God is just a personal spirituality with no consequence outside my private world. Jesus spent a lot more time with business people than he did with theologians. The Gospels were addressed to civil servants, military personnel and small business owners torn between their obligations to God, state and economy.

How can I integrate God’s high calling on my life to be an excellent business owner, an employer and a person of faith? I think the challenge lies in recognizing the world views that compete for my loyalty, and ordering my values within one.

A utilitarian approach would give my employee a great reference with my fingers crossed behind my back, and I could give thanks on Sunday that my burdens had been lifted. If my conscience gives me trouble, I’ll send a donation with the employee.

If Mammon is my mentor, I’ll do a cost-benefit analysis to determine how much this toxic worker is worth to the company and weight the reference accordingly.

As a co-dependent, I could support the worker at continuing loss to the company and myself.

But if God governs, my employee is neither a disposable component to be used and discarded, nor my personal burden and responsibility. Like me, he is created in the image and likeness of God, and his toxicity is an injury to what God created good. The marketplace is not a sideline to occupy time between Sundays and raise money for expenses, but a natural place for God’s kingdom to unfold.

If I can assist this employee to health, I am obliged to open a door for counselling or other means toward wholeness. He already suspects a change of venue will be to his benefit. Without contributing new toxic waste, I will answer the reference questions as honestly as possible, neither praising nor criticizing without cause. Something is about to change in his work situation, whether he gets the new job or not.
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