How far should you go in trying to be kind to your staff?

Staffing Issues: Are You Killing Them With Kindness?

I seem to be have been talking to lots of firms about staffing issues lately, hence the topic of this week’s article. Most small firms are keen to foster a friendly or family culture if they can. Anyone who has worked in a large corporate environment may be extra keen to create a business that doesn’t get caught up in the politics that can go hand in hand with a bigger company. But when does this desire become uncommercial and a problem? My own experience is that you need to provide tough love on occasions. In my business in Sydney we had an adviser who wasn’t quite cutting the mustard. As part of an MBA course, I had completed a subject that was all about designing remuneration systems to encourage the right behaviors. So, I set about (with great enthusiasm, I might add) designing a multi-pronged measurement system that focused not just on business written (which was one metric) but on some softer behaviors, such as:

  • Handing work over to support staff that was correct.
  • Turning around work in line with our internal service standards.
  • Getting good peer reviews from other team members.

Hitting all of these areas would see the adviser earn substantially more than he currently did, which was one of his issues with us. As pleased as punch, I went home and explained to my wife the ingenious and motivational package I had created for this guy. She listened intently and then gave me her feedback: “You’re paying him a bonus just to do his job? You’re mad!” And that was that. But she was right.

Do You Have To Be Cruel To Be Kind?

In our attempts to be kind to the people that work for us, I am not convinced we do them, or ourselves, any favours. I now know what I should have done with my adviser in Sydney; moved him on. By putting up with less than adequate performance (and let’s be honest, my performance criteria was to obtain nothing more than adequate performance), we end up working for the people that we employed to work for us. We bend and flex all over the shop, so they’ll be happy at work. Or we end up spending so much time managing them that we can’t perform our own critical role as part of the team.

Take Action

If you’ve got someone in a role who can’t do the job as you require them to do it (and you’ve tried some remedial action or extra training already), let them go…and make sure you hire someone who has the skills and attitude you need.

If you’ve got a team, and some of that team are not up to speed or spread toxic vibes within the business, cut them out straight away. I was involved with a firm up north where we turned over all but two of their nine member team in 12 months. The culture in the place had become toxic in a kind, but misguided, attempt to accommodate people.

You won’t believe how good it feels to finally bite the bullet and make that decision. In all likelihood, your gut has been telling you to do it for months anyway.

By Brett Davidson


7 thoughts on “How far should you go in trying to be kind to your staff?

  • Excellent article, Brett. Wholly agree with your sentiments here. It’s seriously difficult to execute though, particularly in a small team!

  • Hi Brett,

    Spot on as ever.

    As others have said, it often feels hard to do. It is interesting and frustrating that once you screw up the courage – or run out of patience – the other staff then tend to sigh with relief!

    I wonder if this is related to the ‘Adviser Centric’ business model we see? Perhaps it should be ‘Staff Centric’? In other words, the energy or focus is about internal and comfort, rather than external (client) or process (possible discomfort)?

  • Thanks Phil and Martin. Certainly not a walk in the park to execute in a small team, but essential. In another instance many years ago we lost our best staff member because we failed to address sub standard performance in another staff member. What a disaster.

    Addressing tough decisions (and this sort of thing qualifies) is the responsibility of business leaders. We can’t shirk it or delegate it as much as one often wants to in the first instance when a difficult situation arises. The more we do it the easier it gets because we see the positive outcomes that addressing any situation honestly delivers. (I said easier, but never easy)

  • Hi Brett
    This all seems lovely in theory, but we often seem to get up in HR bureaucracy. Do you have any tips as to how this can be bypassed?

  • It’s interesting how often staff or team issues come up in conversations. Not the easiest for a small business to deal with but sometimes tough conversations need to be had for the sake and sanity of the business and other team members.

    The longer these situations are allowed to go on – the worse it becomes and more difficult to deal with. There’s a real sense of relief when decisions are made and challenging or unproductive behaviour is dealt with.

    There are also resources available to help the smaller businesses who don’t have direct access to an HR Dept.

  • Philip trying to unwind an HR problem is a difficult and bureaucratic process. No magic bully’s there. However, you need to go back three steps and start thinking about construction and management of your team as one of the key issue in building a successful business.

    My suggestion is to engage an external HR professional on a retainer basis to act as your HR director. They can get involved in helping you identify what skills you are looking for when recruiting. They can also help you with vetting and interviewing, regular employee evaluations, setting up correct employment contracts and managing the dismissal process if needs be.

    Most firms are surprised at how affordable that type of support can be from an HR consultant and it gets a professional involved in a critical area of your business.

  • That should read magic bullet, not magic bully’s.


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