Six months ago Lori became the new VP of Human Resources at a successful company with a reputation for strong management. During her interview, the CEO was candid about problems in the HR department — it was sluggish, bureaucratic and distrusted by the executive team. HR was not a real business partner with the operating units. Instead, the departments muddled along on their own while the HR team obsessed over how to properly fill out the forms — but tragically, they did not even do that particularly well.

Lori knew she needed to replace many of her existing employees. Unfortunately, the worst performers had been with the company for decades. So all the institutional knowledge was locked up inside the heads of the poorest performers. Lori was deeply uncomfortable firing the only people who knew how things were supposed to work.

So instead of firing, Lori quickly filled a few vacant positions with strong people from outside the company. Yet, two or three new people cannot turn around a department of twenty employees. Alarmingly, Lori realized that her new hires were starting to befriend some of the toxic legacy employees. She worried that by doing nothing, her hard-charging new hires might slip into the old bureaucratic ways of the current team. Simultaneously, she worried that by moving too quickly to replace the toxic legacy employees, she would destabilize the team and alienate everyone left.   What to do?

When faced with toxic employees, most managers hesitate. They instinctively know that the most toxic people are the ones who sue. They know that the least employable people will pull every string to keep their current job (the job they appear to hate, by the way). Time races by as managers daydream about  an orchestra of pianos falling on the toxic people’s heads. But toxic people are like cockroaches – they can survive a nuclear blast. They will never leave on their own.

The only thing to do is fire them.

Lori debated calling it a layoff to help soften the blow.  But sometimes you need a public hanging to get your point across.  Sometimes it’s important to demonstrate there is a new Sheriff in town—that performance matters now. So Lori summoned her nerve and cut the dead wood loose. (She wasn’t stupid about it; she arranged outplacement and a fair severance package in exchange for the employees waiving their right to sue.)

And then a funny thing happened. The sun came up the next day. And good people on the team, who had suffered in silence for years without complaining, came up and to say “thank you” for finally getting rid of the toxic waste. Managers in other departments started to invite HR to meetings again. And Lori’s new hires said “I only befriended the toxic people to get what I needed, but now I can really get up and run, without them in my way.”  And with a few strategic terminations, Lori tipped the culture of her department.


This post originally appeared in the HR Examiner