I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to speak at my SHRM chapter in May and the topic will be HR’s role in dealing with difficult people. Human Resources professionals have consistently been growing into a strategic presence in organizations and we are often relied upon at the senior planning table to help articulate, conceptualize and implement plans to achieve organizational goals. This is an absolute win and I have seen how organizations benefit from having us be part of the process. As most people have experienced at one point or another in their lives, however, even the best laid strategic plan will fail in the hands of toxic people. This is truly where a skilled HR professional can bring maximum value to their role.
But it’s not easy.
Anyone who has been in a senior HR role for any amount of time will have experienced the ‘bad boss’ phenomenon. It starts with rumblings or maybe an employee or two in your office talking about what a ‘jerk’ such-and-such manager is. Further investigation reveals that yes, the manager in question is not upholding corporate values and is inconsistent, disrespectful or even downright mean. Although this is not pleasant, it is somewhat routine for a seasoned HR professional (or great consultant/coach) to address first or second level managers on their conduct.
But what do you do when the toxic person is the most senior executive, owner and/or your boss? I have spoken to countless HR professionals and this is probably the number one reason why great HR people leave organizations. For that matter, it’s the number one reason why any great people leave an organization. From an HR perspective, this can be one of the most challenging and stressful experiences to deal with. There are many different ‘difficult people’ profiles an owner can fall into but as a very general rule these people are: Highly driven, perfectionist, high need for control, intelligent, somewhat blind to their weaknesses, capable, achievement oriented and tending to take things very seriously. Frankly, these skills are necessary for entrepreneurs and almost any owner or CEO will have these traits to an extent. The ‘difficult’ part comes in when one or more of these attributes outweighs others or eclipses their social/emotional intelligence. That is the recipe for toxicity.
When the owner of the company is creating a culture that is drastically undermining the mission of the organization there are only three outcomes:
1) They will realize what they are doing, become willing to change their approach and do so
2) They will realize what they are doing, become willing to change their approach but be unable to do so
3) They will refuse to acknowledge the destructiveness of their behavior and refuse to change.
Usually the ‘realization’ comes from a series of very predictable pain points such as employee turnover, customer loss or other negative feedback. This is a critical point of impact for the HR profiessional. Often, we will be the ones requested to present this information to the owner. This is a very vulnerable position and needs to be handled carefully. It is my experience that until this pain point is reached, change is unlikely. More often than not, the HR professional, as messenger will be the focus of the owner’s discontent with the feedback. Just because this is uncomfortable, does not mean it should be avoided. There comes a time in everyone’s professional career where we must weigh out what’s right and wrong as well as whether we are willing to continue in a situation if it doesn’t change. In other words, working with the toxic owner also will produce a pain point spurring action.
Once the owner realizes their problem and becomes willing to change the HR professional is again a valuable asset. We can either provide access to coaching or sometimes we are the coaches and this will be both challenging and rewarding.
There are also the situations where the owner does not acknowledge a problem with their behavior and to the HR professional and much of the organization the behavior is intolerable. When this happens, unfortunately there are not many alternatives. IF the behavior is truly egregious the company’s future success is in jeopardy. It is sometimes worthwhile to stage an intervention with other key executives in the company to try to force a realization on the part of the owner but if that does not produce a desire to change, it may be time to select a new opportunity.
In the end, becoming adept at helping bad bosses become great leaders is one of the most important contributions of a talented HR Professional.