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Short-term pain for long-term gain

By Karen Wensley

While firing a high performer may hurt in the short term, keeping them will hurt even more if they’re a cheat or a bully.

In February, Susan Fowler, an engineer who had recently resigned from Uber, published a now-famous blog. In it, she provided details of ongoing harassment and sexist behaviour that she and other women working at the company had put up with. The board of Uber launched an external investigation into its corporate culture, which resulted in more than 20 employees being fired for sexual misconduct and contributed to the departure of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. What made me the angriest was not the bad behaviour, which can occur anywhere, although not to the extreme degree that was reported at Uber. It was the reaction Fowler reported receiving when she went to HR. What she got was victim blaming (she was asked if she had ever considered that she might be the problem) and a refusal to do anything because the manager who threatened her “was a high performer.”

When I cooled down, I gave more thought to the protection of so-called high performers. We have all worked with them — the men and women who exceed the targets that are considered the most important by the company they work for. Most organizations have balanced scorecard performance management systems, but everyone knows which goals really matter. They relate to the direct drivers of profitability, such as delivering the software on time or having the biggest book of business or driving costs down. The problem arises when people resort to cheating, bullying or other shortcuts to achieve them or when their general obnoxious behaviour is tolerated because they are so good at what they deliver.

It’s not really HR’s fault. It gets its marching orders from senior management. Often these bad apples are great at managing upward and so are seen to be the favourites of the top executives. As a result, people working with or for them hesitate to report the bad behaviour. More often, senior management suspects that its superstar is no angel, but reasons that the behaviour isn’t really “that bad” and anyhow the bad stuff is far outweighed by his or her importance to the company. It fears that if it gives the high performer a negative performance review in the people/values dimension, he or she will retaliate or leave.

It is important to distinguish between people who have different strengths and those whose behaviour is destructive. None of us can be good at everything — we can’t be great technical experts, great salespeople and great mentors, with a full command of both details and the big picture. A top-performing team leverages the diverse strengths of its members, and doesn’t overvalue or undervalue any one attribute to the detriment of others. Destructive behaviour is dangerous to the whole team because it undermines the values of the organization, causes people to leave or underperform and in the longer term harms the bottom line that the superstar is apparently so vital to.

That is one of the most interesting things about Fowler’s blog. She doesn’t just point out that during her tenure, the percentage of women in her part of the organization dropped to 6% from 25%. She also talks about “a game-of-thrones political war raging within the ranks of upper management …. I remember a very disturbing team meeting in which one of the directors boasted to our team that he had withheld business-critical information from one of the executives so that he could curry favor with one of the other executives.” The point is that one kind of bad behaviour (e.g., harassment) is rarely the only violation of the code of conduct committed by the high performer.

The point is not to go out and fire everyone whose behaviour is offensive. But organizations must decide which values are mission critical and take actions to uphold them. If there are clear consequences for the cheats and bullies, rewards for those who can work in and lead effective teams and programs to help those who are struggling to adapt, the culture will keep the worst stuff in check.

In the short term, the departure of a key individual may hurt, but in the longer term, the retention of that individual will hurt even more.

Karen Wensley, MBA, is a lecturer in professional ethics at the University of Waterloo and a retired partner of EY.

This article was originally published in CPA Magazine.