The Untouchables: Why You Should Stop Coddling Bad Employees

Are you one of those companies that would rather preserve everyone than let them go?

Right now, I know of at least one organization where  — despite lackluster performance, poor behavior, and the disbanding of their team of direct reports — a leader is being salvaged beyond their time because no one has the juevos to let go of the people who are detracting from the organization.

Let’s be honest employers …

With the exception of a select group of companies, it has been my experience that many of you see your workforces as being dispensable.

If business is down over a period of time and tough decisions have to be made, you lay off people without blinking an eye. If one of your employees doesn’t exactly fit the mold or doesn’t flow with the way of the company, get rid of them is what you say.

Oh, but there are a select “untouchable” few that get to stay for the ride.

They have a certain pedigree these untouchables. If you went around and did a very unofficial survey of your workforce at the moment to find out who people believe are “untouchable” in your organization they would either be reluctant to answer and/or with some further assurance of no retaliation — they would give you at least one name.

Note: Silence is also an answer.

Sometimes these people are at the staff level. In the eyes of their peers, they are disruptive to an otherwise healthy work environment. They do very little, or sometimes, they do a lot. Whatever they do, they are not interested in assimilating and working cooperatively, because they don’t have to.

Despite any complaints or even visual cues that they are contaminating your ecosystem, and you the employer continue to reward poor behavior by promotions that they aren’t worthy of. You offer these “untouchables” opportunities that your other employees would die for.

In fact, they may be dying for said opportunities as they continue to work painfully hard hoping that it will someday be recognized and rewarded.

What of the untouchable leader?

This is probably the most damaging of all of the untouchables.

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You all know at least one leader that you have encountered that shouldn’t be allowed to lead anyone, let alone be employed by a company in such a capacity. They are not always the vile characters we often think about. Sometimes they are just cunning, undercutting, always playing and dealing a card at the right time.

Everyone on their staff sees them for who they are. Internal and external partners even see it. The trouble is when HR ignores the smoke and the C-Suite is blinded completely by charm and other artificially-sweetened personality trickery. There are usually attempts to dethrone this person, but they are usually thwarted by a lengthy list of reasons why the person cannot be fired.

You may be saying, “This is how it is,” If that is your stance, you should also be made aware of the damage these people cause.

Why you should stop saving bad employees

Here are some reasons why you should stop salvaging bad employees now:

  1. You are setting a precedent that good performance and showing up every day in a positive manner has no bearing on an employee’s success in your company.
  2. These people disrupt the office environment. People tip-toe around them, avoid them and are sickened by having to share in office events or the presentation of yet more accolades for someone who really isn’t deserving of any of it.
  3. It causes a slow and painful deterioration to both employee loyalty and effort. Some will hang in there with you, but many will see your allegiance to an untouchable as a personal affront to their career aspirations. If the sentiment is the latter, you will either lose people or see people do less, because they will figure working hard isn’t a worthy approach in your company.

It’s important to be cognizant of the messages you send about what success looks like in your organization. It’s fairly easy to write down a mission and values statement, but what does that look like in practice?

Be sure that the picture of success that you woo candidates with is the same view they have as they progress through your organization.

This was originally published on Janine Truitt’s The Aristocracy of HR blog.

Janine N. Truitt is a human resources professional as well as an HR blogger/founder of “The Aristocracy of HR” blog. Follow her blog "The Aristocracy of HR" at . Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her tweets on Twitter @CzarinaofHR. The opinions shared in her articles are her own and are in no way a reflection of the views of her employer.


4 Comments on “The Untouchables: Why You Should Stop Coddling Bad Employees

  1. Amen, Janine. You speak truth here.

    I worked for one such company. Sadly, the C-suiters were aware of this leader’s antics, but chose to turn a blind eye. This malcontent had been with the organization for many years and was relatively good at her job, though her success was scarce and random in the last few years she was employed there.

    This “leader” hoodwinked the C-suit, but those of us left to deal with her, daily, knew her games. Her presence had a deleterious effect on everyone that reported to her, especially those who were new to the workforce or to the company… the young and learning. She intimidated these people into doing personal errands and other non-work related tasks for her and instinctively knew just who to target for this purpose… the young and learning. She, also, went out her way to intimidate these people and was quick to criticize them for the littlest of things.

    As a seasoned professional, they would often turn to me for comfort and advice. (They knew she tried to impose herself on me once, but I put a professional kibosh on her attempt and made no bones about not putting up with her antics in the future.) My advice to the young and learning was two-fold: Create a shield of protection and the best way to do this was to be very good at what they do and be a standout employee. The second bit of advice was to notate her egregious behavior and speak with the head of our human resources department. Unfortunately, the head of HR was one of the people who chose to turn a blind eye, so this turned out to be a dead end.

    Ultimately, many good people left the organization because the stress of dealing with this malcontent became unbearable for them. Some people left angrily and some in a state of relief. Either way, this was not a good situation.

    The day of reckoning finally arrived after many years of dealing with this “leader.” The organization underwent a fairly significant layoff and she was released from the company. For those of us who remained, we rallied together and to a person, we all felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off our collective shoulders.

    Toxic work environments are the antithesis of a healthy, productive workplace. The situation should have never been allowed to escalate to the point where people were leaving (actually running) from their positions. To this day, when I think back, I still do not understand how this situation could have happened, and more so, how it was allowed to persist for so many years.

    In a strange kind of way, I believe toxic work environments create a condition similar to PTSD and put people in a state of high alert and stress. In subsequent conversations with some of the “victims”, it was obvious that the sting of the toxicity still lingered for them, even after they left the company.

  2. Cyndy,

    First off, thank you for reading. Secondly, the piece you mentioned about PTSD after surviving or barely surviving a toxic environment is absolutely true. Unfortunately, I have survived more than one toxic environment over the course of my career. Each time that I moved on, I found it was hard to re-wire myself or to even let my guards down because of the experiences I have had.

    I was leery of getting close to anyone. I was leery of leaders ( in some regard, I still am). I didn’t trust HR and I worked there.

    I definitely understand what you went through. My hope is that my articles will awaken leaders and change some behaviors. Fingers crossed. Thank you for sharing your story. I think it’s important that people know the reality of how this affects people in the workplace.

    All the best,


    1. Good question, Robert. At an very basic level, it is due to flawed hiring practices and a reluctance to manage poor performers out of the company. There are innumerable reasons for why this happens.The key is recognizing when it is happening in your company and being proactive in fixing it. Thanks for reading.

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