Every company has the potential to have an employee that delivers a lot to the bottom line, but creates a toxic environment that can harm the overall culture. Great leaders who avoid addressing such an issue run the risk of having to live with their choices. I found this to be the case with one particular client.

Chris is a talented professional. She works hard for her clients, provides great service, and achieves results day in and day out. She is one of those young, creative, opportunity-seeking types—astute at saying the right thing at the right time to the right people. She is especially adept at “painting pictures” that indemnify her of any wrongdoing when projects are not successful and others are involved.

She is also responsible for the clients providing 40 percent of the company’s revenue.

Chris joined the company six years ago when it was a start-up. Today, the company is 60 employees strong, well-known in its industry, and led by a charismatic, flamboyant CEO/founder.

She has endeared herself to both the CEO/founder and the company president by constantly reminding them of her loyalty over the years. She also plays up a “you’ve been like a mother to me” emotional connection with the CEO, who has remarked on numerous occasions that Chris is like a daughter to her.

By testing the waters, Chris has learned over the years that she can “push the envelope” to influence the CEO and president into actions that selfishly benefit Chris.

For example, on several occasions Chris has spread gossip about other employees, knowing this would upset each person enough to go to the CEO, in hopes that something would be done. Each time, when confronted by the CEO, Chris got teary-eyed, apologizing profusely and promising never to do it again—all the while inferring that the targets of her gossip deserved the negative attention due to their incompetencies. Chris also complained that she had to carry the projects she worked on with these people and reaffirmed her dedication to the CEO by upholding the “virtues” of the company.

Each time these issues arose, the CEO forgave Chris, and each year, she got a bonus regardless of her behavior because the CEO was afraid Chris would leave. Precedent had been established; it was business as usual!

Recently, both the CEO and president began questioning Chris’s tactics because many of the people recently hired and placed on her team were failing. Upon the departure of these employees, most shared details of Chris’s condescending and self-serving managerial style.

Rather than letting go of all the individuals who “failed” on Chris’s team, many were moved to other teams under different leaders. There, they seemed to blossom. Apparently, Chris had been doing little to train them, teach them, and develop them, as though she was intent on hoarding all the work with clients herself and determined to treat her reports as nothing more than secretaries.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Chris was summoned to the CEO’s office, where she also found the president waiting. There, she learned that she would no longer have people reporting to her and that both the CEO and president needed her to correct her treatment of others and come up with a plan for how she would do things differently going forward.

They offered her coaching, training—whatever it took—to support and reinforce her behavior modification. They also told her that if she took no action and the behavior continued, she would be let go. They gave Chris until Monday morning to consider their requests, at which time she would need to share her plans for modification.

On Monday morning, the three reconvened the meeting. “I have thought about my predicament and thank you for your support,” Chris began. “But I have decided to quit and find a new job.”

This was not what the CEO and president expected. Immediately, they panicked, thinking about the 40 percent of company revenue for which she was responsible.

Backpedaling, the CEO asked Chris what she would need to stay.

“More money,” was her predictable response.

At a crossroads, the CEO and president found themselves facing an unexpected dilemma: do they reward Chris with more money, or do they let her go?

  • If they do not give Chris more money, she quits, which carries the potential to affect 40 percent of company revenues. Of course, her departure would eliminate the negative/toxic environment that her presence promotes within the company rank and file, which likely would be a boon for many.
  • If they give Chris the money, the 40 percent revenue is unaffected, but the negative/toxic environment continues.

Whew, what a choice! What’s yours?

Stuart Friedman is president of Progressive Management Associates. He is a business visionary who guides organizations through cultural shifts. He promotes environments that inspire collaboration, transparency in the pursuit of strategic outcomes and heart-felt desires. Reach Stuart via email: stuart@pma-co.com