The “Terrorist” Employee

Feb 03, 2003

Everyone in our country seems to be worried about terrorists. Undoubtedly, there are some good reasons to be concerned. But maybe the trouble is even closer to home— like in your own firm. We find that many A/E and environmental firms are dealing with “terrorists” inside their firms— “terrorist” employees! What am I talking about? The “terrorist employee” is one who strikes fear into the hearts of the firm’s management. Management is scared because the employee has a history of sexual harassment suits. Management is scared because the employee is threatening a discrimination claim. Management is scared because the employee is the only person the company has in their specific role and there’s no back-up. Management is scared because the employee is the lead in a major client relationship. Management is scared because the employee is a relative or lover of someone higher up in the firm’s management or ownership. I find that these people often have radical variation in their performance profiles. They may be incredibly good at some aspects of their work and then horrible performers in some other way. But the bottom line is that these “terrorists” cause their supervisors and their supervisors’ supervisors many sleepless nights. Sometimes even the situation with the terrorist employee is so bad that the manager actually quits to get away from the problem! Let’s face it. Many of us have “terrorist” employees working in our firm. So what are some counter-terrorism measures you can take? Find out how you got into this situation and take steps to prevent it from happening in the future. Did you do good reference checks? If so, did you really listen to what you heard? Did you follow your gut or were you too anxious to hire? Did you give yourself some alternative candidates or have a field of one to pick from? Many times the terrorism problem starts right here in the hiring process. Get back-ups for everyone but most importantly for the terrorist. If this person is in a mission-critical role, whatever it may be, with no back-up, it’s time to take action. Transfer someone in from another area of the firm to work with that person. Hire a back-up or second lieutenant from outside the firm. The point is you have to be ready for the person not being there if you are going to confront the problem. Update your employer liability insurance. If you don’t have it, get it. Any firm can buy it, and it’s not that expensive. More than one of our clients has benefited from our suggestion to buy this insurance. There’s usually a deductible— $10K-$25K— but just like for E&O claims the employer liability insurer can provide early assistance in handling these problems. Document everything. Any time the person does something wacky, or bad, or makes a threat, or says something that concerns you, write it down. This information could come back to help you later on. Avoid solo, closed-door meetings with the “terrorist.” This is especially critical if you fear a harassment claim. While undoubtedly there may be many legitimate claims of harassment by employees, there are also those who make a career of suing their employers. You have good reason to be scared of these people. I was just talking last week with a fellow who got sued by someone with a long history of making false claims. He spent over $20,000 on legal fees before the judge threw out the case. But even that may have been lucky compared to what could have happened. Protect yourself and always keep others around when dealing with one of these people. Hope for the best and anticipate the worst. The terrorist situation will be resolved. Either the terrorist will drop a bomb and flee or you will get fed up and confront the situation. The bottom line is it may come sooner than you think. Be prepared. Know who you will consult for legal advice. Have the back-up in place. And if not, know where you will look for a replacement. Finally, decide in advance of the situation how you will communicate what happened to others inside and outside of the firm. Maybe 20 years from now we will all have “Homefirm Security Czars.” If that happens, I hope I’m out of the business by then! Originally published 2/03/2003

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.