When top performers get away with misconduct, whole companies suffer

Tolerating offside behaviour from employees just because they get results is poisonous

 
Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a CBC radio studio
If Jian Ghomeshi had been rank-and-file, he likely would have been turfed far earlier. Too many managers give a pass to high performers for their bad behaviour. (Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star/Getty)

Years ago, in a downtown Vancouver Denny’s, Cameron Herold’s mentor asked him a simple question: whether any of his employees weren’t really working out. Looking across the table to the advisor he respected so greatly, Herold, a veteran leader of some of Canada’s most successful companies, who now works as an executive coach, had to be truthful. Yes, there was one guy whose emotional volatility over the previous six months had sparked a series of increasingly unacceptable incidents in the office. “Why haven’t you let him go?” his mentor asked. Because, Herold said, the problem staffer had been responsible for a major PR win, and had been solidly delivering results for years, and was, you know, a good guy. A friend, even.

The mentor issued a harsh verdict: The employee had to go, and he had to go that day, before he caused more damage. “That was some of the hardest-hitting and best teaching I’ve ever had,” Herold writes in his 2011 book Double Double. It forced Herold to confront some uncomfortable truths about behaviour that he’d excused for too long.

Every manager can learn from that gut check. And in the past month or so we’ve all been confronted with a vivid example of what it looks like when these problems are left to fester: CBC’s firing of Jian Ghomeshi over allegations of abusive behaviour, at work and outside of it, illustrate the perils of turning a blind eye.

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Many aspects of the Ghomeshi affair—the full extent and severity of the alleged abuses, Ghomeshi’s $55-million wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the CBC and now a criminal investigation—are still in flux and it will be some time before there is any closure in a legal sense.

But as a workplace culture, CBC’s dysfunction has been laid bare, and all employers would probably see facets of themselves reflected there—if they were brave enough to look closely.

Ghomeshi’s bad behaviour wasn’t exactly news to CBC brass. A former Q producer told the Globe and Mail of “this weird vibe around Jian and women.” Ex-colleagues spoke of the secret code word they had for Q guests with whom the host had a sordid past. A journalism professor told the Toronto Star he’d warned students against interning at the program. The more stories come to light, the more it becomes clear that Ghomeshi’s poor conduct was an open secret at the Mother Corp. for years.

So why, then, did the CBC wait so long to do anything? Because Ghomeshi was a rainmaker. For years, Q was one of the few unqualified success stories in the beleaguered broadcaster’s lineup, with consistently high listenership, much-needed critical acclaim and syndication on 180 Public Radio International stations in the U.S. Had Ghomeshi been rank-and-file, it’s likely he’d have been turfed long ago. But it’s a lot easier to ignore misconduct when the person doing it is keeping the lights on.

This Machiavellian approach to management—that star performers somehow get a pass if they produce results, that the ends really do justify the means—is incompatible with the progressive ethos of 21st century business, yet it’s pervasive. Most people, if they’re being honest, will recognize that they employ, work with or report to someone to whom the rules just don’t seem to apply. Think of the top sales rep who makes lewd comments to the intern. Or the brilliant coder who shows up to work high. Or the operations whiz who peddles racist jokes.

These people are toxic for morale, leaving their co-workers and direct reports feeling uncomfortable and powerless. And they’re bad for business: For every client who loves Doug the sales rep’s dirty jokes after the third drink, you can assume there is at least one who’s appalled.

What Herold realized years ago, and what more of us should learn, is that no short-term material benefit is worth the long-term damage that comes from justifying behaviour more suited to a Mad Men script than a modern office. The sooner you remove these agitators, the better off your business will be. Fire them, put them on probation, get them help if they need it. Just don’t pretend it’s OK.

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