Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. He writes a column about growing entrepreneurial companies exclusively for WRAL TechWire. The columns are published on Tuesdays.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – At some point, every startup will have at least one employee who threatens the success of the company. What do you do with this person?

The issue might be a loss of motivation, maybe a lack of growth, or it could just be a shift in attitude that has made them toxic to everyone around them.

The solution is far from simple.

Yeah, you wish you could just fire them, but that’s not as clean as it sounds in your head when you’re driving to work. First of all, firing is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. Furthermore, when you’re a startup, every hand on the deck counts, and there’s never a good time to lose two of them. Finally, there was a reason you hired this person, and second-guessing sucks.

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

Look, you’ve got a broken employee. You don’t need to fix the person. But you do need to fix the problem. You can survive mistakes and lean times and external forces, but you can’t survive threats coming from the inside.

How Did We Get Here?

This is not an uncommon problem in any workplace, especially in a startup. Here are the causes I usually uncover:

  • Hiring the wrong person is not hard to do. We move fast. Our focus is usually on a dozen different things, and only one of them is bringing in the right help. No matter how thorough our vetting process is, invariably, someone will figure out a way to beat it.
  • Hiring people we know is easy to do. When we’re just getting our business off the ground, it’s tempting to tap people close by, especially those people who we’re already comfortable being around. They may be a great friend, even a great human being, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be a great employee.
  • When times get tough, flaws come out. When a new hire is made, chances are that life is pretty rosy on both sides. It’s when trouble hits the fan that you see the weaknesses.
  • People are weird, man. Sometimes a person changes because of the work. Sometimes a person changes for reasons that are totally external to the work. And sometimes people just change for no good reason.

Get To the Root Cause Quickly

Whatever the reason, it’s critical to identify the root cause immediately. The easy thing to do is try to let the fire burn itself out. If the mistake is on us for hiring the wrong person, it’s a fool’s bet that it will fix itself. If the employee just went off the tracks, they may or may not be swayed back on, but we can’t let that happen on their schedule.

Disengaged, angry, or lost employees are broken employees. They’re going to cause resentment with their attitude. They’re going to suck other people’s time fixing their mistakes. They’re going to sew discontent when things get tough.

In any case, you need to fix this. And you do that by identifying and attacking root causes.

They’re Disengaged

I wake up every morning absolutely thrilled to get to work.

I’m totally lying to you, and so is everyone who ever said something like that. I have a real life with multiple priorities and a mind and a body that get tired of the grind. I go to work to do fun things, but often difficult things, and the rewards, while they can be incredible, can also be few and far between.

The concept of employee engagement is relatively new, but it’s been around in startup for a little while longer than the rest of the working world. It’s also the most prevalent reason I see for broken employees.

In the old days, you went to work, put in your eight hours, knocked off at 5:00, maybe had a couple of beers, and did it all again the next day. Yeah, a lot of jobs are still exactly like that, but that doesn’t mean a lot of employees think that way or still want that.

In startup, and especially in technology-based startup, creativity in the expression of knowledge is required to succeed, to even survive. Creativity doesn’t exist without passion, and passion doesn’t exist without engagement.

In the modern workplace, fewer and fewer of us are going to work just for the paycheck — although I won’t argue that’s still a part of it. But most of us need to be rewarded for our labor outside of said paycheck. It could be as simple as internal recognition, or maybe just understanding how our part in the process makes a difference out in the real world.

You can’t fix engagement with fluff. Happy hours, plaques, and photos on the website are all band-aids on a bigger problem. And most of the time, if one person is disengaged to the point where it’s obvious, there are probably several others who are less-obviously disengaged.

Fix the employee’s disengagement issues personally, over time, with a plan that comes from conversations with them. But also take a look at the company culture and morale. If it’s not excellent, put a plan together to fix that too.

They’re Angry

You don’t know what you or the company did to set off this employee, but you’re never going to figure it out without talking to them.

Time and familiarity tend to turn little issues into big issues because those little issues add up. It doesn’t take much for people to start to feel slighted, overlooked, under-appreciated, or just plain screwed over.

It’s kind of human nature. For example, when I have several months in a row of record-breaking revenue and then the next month revenue actually falls, there’s a little part of me that’s like: “THE CUSTOMERS ARE BEING JERKS!”

The customers are never jerks. I’m just angry at probably a dozen different things, some of them probably even have to do with me.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve advised a founder to just keep talking to the angry employee and after one or two or maybe three conversations one thing gets said and all that anger just kind of melts away. I’m not saying this is going to happen, I’m just saying I’ve seen it happen a lot. It also works with employees who are hurt or fearful, for what that’s worth.

That said, if it takes more than three conversations and there isn’t any change, the fourth conversation probably has to be more drastic.

They’re Lost

Some people are good at raising their hand and asking a stupid question. I like to think I’m an expert at it. Others would rather die in a dentist’s chair than look like they don’t know what’s going on. Those are the people that usually get left behind as the speed of the company gets faster and the growth gets more intense.

This gets exacerbated at a startup, because when growth intensifies, the first thing that suffers is communication. I still walk into meetings asking “What is this about?” or “What are we selling them?” way more often than I’d like.

There are three fixes for this. 

  • First, get the employee back up to speed in a manner that’s neither embarrassing nor condescending. 
  • Then, make sure your culture makes it clear that mistakes and questions are not only tolerated, they’re encouraged. 
  • Finally, if that employee can’t grow as fast as the rest of the company, find them a soft landing.

They’re Headed In a Different Direction

In a startup, there are a million ways to go from zero to success, and only a handful of them will actually work. I don’t think I have to elaborate on what kind of chaos can be caused if everyone at the company isn’t all on the same page.

Disagreement is fine. Dissenting opinions should be encouraged. Options are awesome. But at some point, I split from the conventional wisdom that it’s OK to stay in everyone’s face when you think your way is the only right way.

Choose your cutoff here and choose it wisely. A leader looks good when they consider all sides until they look weak when they can’t get everyone to reach consensus.

They’re Something You Can’t Explain

Again, you don’t have to fix the person. Sometimes people go through phases that push work way down their priority list. This comes down to a personal decision on your part and it neatly wraps up the kicker of how to fix people problems.

You can decide whether you want to fix the problem, live with it, or fire it away. But whatever you end up doing, don’t make the decision without knowing as much as you can about the root cause. Because no matter which way you choose to solve the problem, you want to make sure you do it without any regrets.

Hey! If you found this post actionable or insightful, please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter at joeprocopio.com so you don’t miss any new posts. It’s short and to the point.

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