Protecting teamwork from rebellious employees

One of my favorite game shows is Family Feud. You know the program – two teams made up of sisters, brothers, in-laws and outlaws who guess what the most common responses were to an audience survey about specific questions that anyone can relate to.

If your team can pick the most common responses – you win! But if you make a mistake, the opposing team gets a chance to steal your points. It's kind of like the business world when it comes to getting hired. If a prospective employee comes up with all the right answers in an interview, they "win" a job. On the flipside of things, if the employer makes a mistake in the interviewing process, they "lose".

How do they lose? By hiring someone else's problem child.

If we were to compare our workplace interpersonal dynamics to a family, making a wrong hire is like inviting some dysfunctional cousin to live with you for a "couple of weeks" but then they never leave. Every family has its share of dysfunctional relatives; an aunt everyone avoids talking to at family reunions because she loves to gossip, an older brother who still feels it's his responsibility to lord over his younger siblings, or a step mother in a melded family who plays favorites with her own kids.

Yep, family dynamics are complex to be sure, but there's a critical difference between family dynamics and workplace dynamics: family you're stuck with, employees you choose. So if you don't want your workplace "family" to suffer from dysfunctional relationships, you have to be careful to make the right choices. Or at least, not make the wrong choices.

One of the ways companies make "wrong" choices is similar to the part of the Family Feud where the opposing team has the chance to "steal" points, except in the hiring game, it's about "stealing" employees. It happens when you interview someone and they look like they make a great addition to the "family". They smile, they're polite and respectful, and according to their resume, their skill set and experiences look amazing.

When you introduce them to other members of your team, everyone seems to be impressed. You might be tempted to hire them on the spot, except for one small, minor problem. They're currently employed by another "family". Not surprisingly, they ask you not to contact their current employer, because that other employer is not aware that they are looking for a new job. They ask you to respect their confidentiality.

When you ask about the "other" job, the person being interviewed is vague about why they are looking for some new "family" other than hinting that, well, let's just say the family dynamics at their other place of employment aren't exactly healthy. They say that they are looking for a place where they can be appreciated for their multiple, invaluable and extraordinary skills. Then the smile fades, their shoulders visibly slump, and as they gaze down at their shoelaces you hear a soft, whimsical whisper, mixed with depression and just a faint tinge of hope. They tell you that the reason they're looking for a new job is because they just want to be "happy" at a place that will value all the incredible things they are prepared to bring to a "new" family.

Does this sound familiar?

It does, doesn't it? Because you've heard it. Many times. You must have, because after twenty years of providing consulting in team building, I continually hear about how a lack of teamwork can be traced back to only a couple of destructive employees. Employees who, like the aunt, love to gossip. Who, like the older brother, somehow think it's their responsibility to point out all the errors the other co-workers are making. Who, like the step mother, play favorites with a chosen few, at the expense of everyone else. After being told by clients all the grisly details of how these few employees (or even just one) managed to create interpersonal stress, distress and an overall sense of dis-ease amongst their co-workers, I always ask "So why did you hire them in the first place? Didn't you find out about their dysfunctional behavior when you phoned their previous employers for a reference?" Having asked this question more times than I can count, it's almost like having a survey. Kind of like the survey questions in Family Feud. And you know what the most common answer is?

Survey said!!!

"Well, Dr. Orieux, the reason we didn't call their previous reference was because they asked us not to, because they were still working there and they wanted us to respect their confidentiality."

If that's the #1 most common response I've heard, then when I ask follow-up questions as to why the team-wreckers were hired, the second most common response sounds something like this:

"And they gave us all the right answers to the questions we asked.em>"

Wow! What a potentially amazing coup for the company! It's like picking up some superstar athlete on wavers. How incredibly lucky! It sounds like this kind of employee would have made a great addition to the corporate family.

That is, as long as the company wanted to play Family Feud.

Because wait – there is still one more common response to my survey question about why they chose to hire this Dangerous Dana (or Dan). The other response I typically hear is:

"They seemed to have all the skills we were looking for. If they weren't happy at their other job, we felt confident they would be happy with us. It looked like a golden opportunity, but one that if we didn't take advantage it by offering them a job, that someone amongst our competitors would."

Kind of like when one team in Family Feud gets the chance to "steal points" away from the competition, except in this case one employer "steals" an employee away from someone else. Score! And of course, the new employer would undoubtedly be able to lift that employee out of their depths of sadness and depression, because the new employer had exactly what the unhappy employee was looking for – a healthy "family" dynamic in their current workforce. At least, the family dynamic was healthy, until the employer decided to take on the role of savior and rescue the poor, undervalued, underappreciated person from their current situation of working in what sounded like some child-labor sweat shop. Kind of like the literary characters Oliver Twist or Little Orphan Annie. The employer who gets to rescue the orphan feels like a hero. That is, until the employer and the rest of the corporate family finds out that the new hire wasn't an orphan. More accurately, they were a runaway. Do you know what the difference is between an orphan and a runaway?

Think about it…

An orphan has no choice in the matter. But a runaway does. In most cases, when a teenager is a runaway, it's because they are rebellious towards authority figures. And who might these authority figures be?

Survey said!!!

The three most common authority figures they are running from is parents, teachers or (in many cases) police. Sure, runaways will have a whole bunch of reasons why they are being hard-done-by, but social workers will tell you to be cautious when you hear these stories because most of the time, runaways are wonderful actors. They're great at creating sympathy for themselves. When we hear their tale of woe, most of us tend to feel sorry for them. So we sympathize with them and simply believe whatever they tell us. If possible, we might even want to offer them care, comfort and protection. In a corporate sense, we can offer them this by "hiring" them.

But before we do, we should soberly ask ourselves a pointed question. If runaways are typically running from parents, teachers, or the police, what's the real problem? Parents typically love their children, teachers typically care about those they're entrusted to teach, and police typically want to protect people for harm's way. So then what, exactly, are runaways typically running away from?

Survey said!!!

They run away because someone is holding them accountable for irresponsible and often dangerous behavior. They run away because they got busted. They run away because they want to do things their way, when their way is self-serving at the expense of others. A hallmark of a runaway versus an orphan, is that when a runaway rebels against authority, they're usually the cause of their own problems. If you want to find out if someone is truly an orphan, as opposed to a runaway, police authorities would be quick to tell you that all you have to do is a background check.

The same principles apply in the workforce when it comes to hiring. Often, when someone is "running" from a current job by looking for a "new" job, it's because they are rebellious in nature and they have created their own problems. A survey of those problems would bring up a response list that would include behavior this is irresponsible, disruptive, self-serving, or a combination of all three.

A background check would show they have been "busted" for this behavior and that those in authority have held them accountable to change their ways, but they don't want to. The dysfunctional mindset they demonstrate is that they want to continue to behave the way they want to behave. In cases where clients tell me that they have had their team spirit and interpersonal dynamics suffer at the hand of one or two rebels who are more focused on creating havoc than harmony, when I ask a series of probing questions about their interviewing techniques, the root of the problem can usually be traced to this one specific thing:

Survey said!!!

When you hire a runaway, who looks like an orphan, and you choose not to do a proper background check, then like the runaway, you create your own problems.

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