For IT leaders facing difficult performance issues with employees, Charlies Firlotte, CEO of Aquarion Corp. has some strategic advice. Based on his years of experience dealing with top performers who just do not fit the culture, he warns against the danger of procrastinating.

This blog posting by Firlotte appeared recently on the National Center for the Midmarket's web site. The center is operated by the Ohio State University. You can find Firlotte’s full blog here as we present an edited version of it below read the full blog here

For several years now a good friend and I have been running on a well-established trail in his town. Our conversations are far ranging, from politics to the stock market to our respective work environments. For almost as long we’ve been running, my buddy has been complaining about this one chap who works for him. The individual in question is arguably his most gifted athlete; that rare combination of raw talent, creative genius, and the ability to deliver. He consistently outperforms his peers. In fact, he leaves them in the proverbial dust.

So what it is the issue? This otherwise star performer consistently creates problems within the organization. He is arrogant and curt, and his co-workers, while cognizant of his talent, are wary of him and avoid him like the plague. They also realize that he gets away with behavior that others would be checked on. The corporate values of this organization are based on such traditional pillars as respect and team work, yet this employee flouts them at will—and with no consequence.

My advice to my buddy has been unwavering. If this fellow cannot or will not cease and desist with these troubling behaviors he has got to go. My buddy does admit that while he has raised the issue over the past couple of years during the annual performance review, his mild admonishment has been lost in the otherwise stellar review that this individual receives. The truth is, my friend has placed more value on the delivery of results than he has on the preservation of a healthy corporate culture. He’s afraid that if admonishment turns into an ultimatum, his star performer will quit.

I recently heard Jack Welch, the iconic (is there really any other word?) former CEO and Chairman of GE, speak about how to balance the performance/ behavior equation.  He was speaking at Sacred Heart University (where I serve on the Board of Trustees) to MBA students at the graduate school that bears his name.  He described “four employee types” and what to do with each of them:

•          Those who make their numbers, perform well, and embrace and embody the corporate values.  They are the stars of tomorrow, and should be incentivized and promoted.

•          Folks who neither make their numbers nor embrace the values. This group should be shown the door.

•          Employees who don’t make the numbers but embrace the values. These workers should be monitored and encouraged in the hope that improved performance will follow.

•          Those who perform well, consistently make the numbers, but continually violate the values. They are toxic, and if they cannot change their behavior they must be released from the corporate fold.

The truth is, when troubling behavior is not addressed, it eats at the organization like a cancer. Teamwork, the “esprit de corps,” and the cultural health of the organization are sacrificed at the altar of productivity. “Oh that’s just Susan!” one of my former peers used to say of a colleague who alienated everyone in her wake. “She ruffles a lot of feathers, but my God nobody delivers like she can.” As fate would have it, Susan eventually came to work in my department, and soon she learned I governed by a different code than what she had been used to. And while I put an abundance of energy into working with her and getting her to appreciate the negative impact of her behavior, I was never successful in so doing.  We parted company some time later.

Unless a superstar with troubling behavior is confronted by a boss with a cease and desist ultimatum, the behavior will not change. But the boss has to mean it, and be willing to back it up with action, up to and including termination if the troubling behavior persists. Frankly, managers (my running buddy included) are equally guilty of violating the corporate values by not addressing the situation.

At Aquarion, our values—the principles that guide our internal conduct as well as our relationships with our customers, partners, and shareholders—are clearly articulated to employees. So is the idea that adherence to these values is just as important as performance. Encouraging and incentivizing employees to embrace our values is interwoven throughout our performance management program. 

It is simply unforgivable for corporate leadership to look the other way and excuse rogue behavior because it is accompanied by delivery of stellar results.  Breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes hard is necessary.

Charles “Chuck” Firlotte is President and Chief Executive Officer of Aquarion Company, the seventh largest investor-owned water utility in the USA, serving Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  Chuck has lived and worked in his native Canada, the US, and the United Kingdom, and has had significant knowledge of environmental issues in Asia, having served on the board of an equipment technology supplier to the clean and waste water industry in China. He is past President of the National Association of Water Companies, based in Washington, D.C You can learn about Firlotte by accessing this link