Antonio Pérez Carmona

Dealing with a Cancer in Your Small Business

So, you are a small business owner and you had one: a cancer. A cancer is the type of employee that is far more destructive to your enterprise than you care to imagine. He or she infects everyone with whom they interact. They spread slowly and painfully until your business is hurt by their very actions. They infect your employees, your customers, and your vendors. When the damage is done – and there will be damage – you are left cleaning up a mess.

Most articles on this subject focus on large companies and the divisions that suffer from occasional bad hires. Few articles focus on the small business experience. As an entrepreneur you are likely wearing far too many hats to recognize a cancer until it is too late. However, as a small business, recovery from a cancer is far more difficult. The big boys can weather that storm. You, on the other hand, need to survive it. Here are some of the lessons I have learned.

The best cure is Prevention

First, like everything else you have been through, a small business owner needs to learn. I have. Here are some of the warning signs that you may be hiring (or considering) a potentially damaging individual:

The interviewed focuses on what is wrong at his or her current employer: interviewees should not focus on why they want to leave. Whereas it is true that legitimate issues may exist at his current employer, focusing on them should not be the point of the interview. If the candidate cannot focus on her strengths without bad-mouthing her current employer, watch out. Someday that interviewee could be talking about you.

The job jumper: certain industries are naturally “mobile.” Maybe yours is. However, mine is not. If the candidate has a lot of jobs in a short period of time, and it does not make sense for your industry, watch out.

The friend that needs saving: you will have them. As a small business owner you will be inundated with friends (or family) that need “rescuing” from their current employer. You may like her. But keep in mind, there are two sides to every story. Your friendly emotions for him may blind you to that current employer’s perspective. BE CAREFUL. Rather than hiring directly, help him or her find a job if you trust that they will not hurt your professional reputation.

The former colleague that needs saving: you will have these, too. Keep in mind, you have changed. Now you are an owner. It is your hide on the line. A former colleague may remember the good old days when you were both the same “rank.” These individuals tend to have a very hard time distinguishing your growth from their fond recollections of the past. This can lead to a multitude of problems. Again, help him or her find a job if you trust that they will not hurt your professional reputation.

All of the above folks should be avoided because they run the risk of being a cancer in your small business. They may not intend to be bad, but sometimes it happens. You do not have the latitude that a larger organization has to survive negativity. Avoid it.


But what happens after you hired him or her?

Still, you are bound to have them. Someone will slip through the cracks. What do you do if you hire one? Answer: fire them immediately. Do not wait. The longer you wait, the deeper the issues will occur. Here are some warning signs that you hired a cancer:

The Hoarder: this individual will not share critical details, emails, or information necessary for the rest of the team. The person that refuses to “reply all” (within reason) is probably a bad fit for your company. A small company is dependent on many people wearing multiple hats. Coverage is key because the loss of an individual for any reason can be damaging to effective operations. The hoarder’s refusal to share information is a key warning sign. Small businesses do not have the privilege of individualism – you are a team. Fire him or her if counseling cannot correct this issue.

The Smarter One: this individual knows more than you and he or she is willing to tell anyone that will listen – except maybe you. First, most of these individuals take the position that they know better. They rely on their previous experiences to justify their current opinions. But they really do not know what is happening behind the closed doors of a small business owner’s office. Sometimes that needs to be private. The conversations you have with attorneys, CPAs, vendors, credit lines, etc., all factor into your decision making. Most likely, the “smarter one” does not know the multitude of inputs you are digesting. The problem: many of his colleagues do not know them, either. What he begins saying about you begins to make sense to them. Whereas some of this can be alleviated with some transparency, not everything can be transparent. Plus, many of your employees are simply not equipped to think beyond their trees to see your forest. If you have one of these folks, fire them – immediately. You will never be “smart enough” for him.

Please do not confuse the above with avoiding constructive, yet conflicting criticism or inputs. Those should be solicited. However, if after weighing his or her inputs you come to a different conclusion (again, probably for reasons that escape him or her), watch how he responds. If he takes offense to a different direction than his own, he is probably one of the “smarter ones.” He needs to go.

Rules Don’t Apply to Me: you know the type. Everyone else is asked to arrive at X time, they arrive at Y. Everyone else has a standard signature, she does not. Everyone else complies with the document retention policy, he deletes his emails. The list goes on. As a small business owner you are building a brand. Consistency is a major part of that strategic growth. Rules, order, and a corporate culture are critical early ingredients to long term success. If he or she cannot be made to understand your strategic logic, part ways.

The Blamer: it’s her fault this went south. It’s his fault that the shipment did not arrive on time. It’s yourfault that the project is a turkey. This individual is never at fault. Worse, to protect his or her “industry reputation,” he begins blaming his colleagues to “his” clients. The company’s reputation will be hurt by the internal blame game. Let him go fast. The blame game quickly erodes the morale of the contributors. You cannot counsel someone that cannot take the fault for their own shortcomings. Protect the contributors, your vendors, and your clients from this individual at all costs.

They’re gone – now what?

OK, you had one. They hurt your company and now they are gone. The damage is done. It may be internal damage (easier to manage) or it may be external damage. That stinks, but you can get through this. Here is my advice for dealing with a cancer after he has left the building:

Set up individual meetings with your remaining employees – especially your best ones: take her into your office and show her that you care about her contributions. Let her vent any frustrations. Most likely, your loyal employees recognized the cancer before you did. After all, they are on the ground while you are dealing with a boatload of other issues. Trust me, they will share – a LOT. Make sure it is not a conversation about why the cancer was so bad. Rather, reinforce your commitment to the good ones. She needs to hear that you care and value her.

Make face time a priority with your clients: get on a plane, train, or an automobile. Speak one on one with the clients you value. Reinforce the reasons they hired you in the first place. Do not mention the cancer at all. Simply, break bread with your client. It will go a long way.

Do nothing: after you have reassured your valued employees and clients, do nothing. Unfortunately, sometimes dirt that is obvious in house is less obvious outside of the home. Now your dirty laundry has been aired. You conveyed confidence in the face of tough times and now the former cancer is telling anyone and everyone just how “bad” it really is at your home. Of course, they have about half the story, but the outsiders do not know that. Let it be. Keep trucking. Just as you should never say anything bad about an ex, because it is unbecoming, so too should you just continue on your path. If asked about him or her, simply state, “It just did not work out for us. I wish him the very best. He is a talented individual.” Soon, the next unfortunate company will be the victim of that cancer’s vitriolic attacks and your higher road approach will pay enormous dividends. No one trusts a back-stabbing individual.

In summary, a cancer is bound to infect your company. It will happen. You are small. You are seeking talent and sometimes the lack of funds or time hurts your ability to hire effectively. It will hurt, but the pain does not have to be long lasting. Just remember the one thing that the cancer could never recognize and will probably never achieve: you OWN a company.

You made it on your own. There is a reason why you were able to do that. Your combination of skills and dedication earned you the right to call yourself an owner. If your confidence or company was shaken by a cancer, take it back. You have been through far worse getting here in the first place

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