During this year’s annual success celebration, one of our long-time partners told me, with some degree of frustration, that he had just fired an employee that worked for him for 15 years.  He had taken the action regretfully and after making many attempts to salvage the working relationship.  I was empathetic having been in the same situation many times during my career.

In any business, many of the frustrations and challenges that the owner(s) face come from employees.  In times of economic expansion, like we are currently in, they are hard to find at all, and when we do, they tend to be expensive on a relative basis because of the basic law of supply and demand.  In the insurance agency business all of this is aggravated by a rapidly aging workforce and the tremendous training expense to bring a new hire to productivity.

When an employee is underperforming, in this kind of environment, it is very difficult to force yourself to take disciplinary action because like our parents used to say, “this hurts me more than it hurts you!”  I find it useful in cases like this to step back and ask myself what I expect and what is being delivered.  If there is a disconnect, I find that “progressive” discipline or long periods of time for rehabilitation never works.  This sort of approach never seems to do anything except prolong frustration.

In Susan Scott’s book, “Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time” she points out how failure to bring a problem directly to an employee with unequivocal consequences for continuing creates all sorts of problems beyond those created directly by the employee.  She also mentions that the squishy way many employers deal with these issues tend to exacerbate them.

Jim Clifton, Chairman of the Gallup Organization, also points out in his book, “The Coming Jobs War” that his research shows disengaged employees are a quantifiable cancer in any organization.  What is a problem employee if not disengaged?

The only answer, and it’s a hard one, is radical surgery.  I find that a fierce conversation, followed by a choice: fix the problem immediately or go, while painful, is ultimately the one that works best.  My colleague’s frustration with letting his long-time employee go was in part the fact that he had tried so hard for so long to avoid the ultimate reality.

On the other hand, especially in the insurance agency business, employees are our greatest asset.  And the development, care, training and encouragement of great employees is our biggest opportunity for growth.  As Clifton also points out, actively engaged employees are three times as productive as those who are not.

Building a successful people business requires confronting the aggravation head on with aggressive pruning and endless nurturing of the keepers!

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