The case for purging Talented, but THORNY Employees

A business should never ever – ever – tolerate a THORNY employee. THORNY employees come in all shapes and sizes. In this article I will put forth my case against THORNY employees. First, how to recognize a THORNY employee. Second, the significant organizational issues they create. And third, why they need to be purged from the organization ASAP. This is a summary article, based upon some of the concepts in my book, “Fresh Start”.

Purging a talented but THORNY employees may seem harsh, simplistic and over reactive. However, I will guarantee that if the organization ignores these employees, then they will pay a steep price. Because according to independent studies, tolerating a THORNY employee, regardless of their skills, will cause direct and indirect financial harm; as well as, contribute to a cynical less productive workforce.


Unfortunately, the identification of a THORNY employee is never clear cut. THORNY employees have a knack of often exhibiting many desirable characteristics. They can be affable, competent, loyal, reliable, charming and possess unique skills. Yet, their undesirable characteristics tend to more than negate their desirable ones.

For example, some signs of a THORNY employee are those that strongly resist change, proceduralization or cross training. They erect invisible internal barriers that inhibit information flow, communication and process change. They are sometimes difficult to work with or through. They can be abrasive, are always controlling, and seem to randomly create preventable fire drills. Their communication style tends to be negative. They closely guard their turf. Their default response is to offer why “it won’t work”, rather than how “it can work”.

They are as a rule: overconfident, self-centered, and are less concerned about others need. Yet interestingly they are more productive than the average employee, but studies reveal that they rarely produce higher quality work, and are unlikely to help the organization in the long-term. Unfortunately, THORNY employees too often win at work because they exhibit some valued traits.


Behaviors matter in all environment. Behaviors are the glue.   A majority of the best-selling business books – focus entirely on behaviors in the workplace. The authors and the readers intuitively know that behaviors are key to increasing employee productivity. Behavioral norms are essential for a productive work environment. Conversely, an organization’s acceptance of unhealthy employee behaviors will decrease organizational employee engagement.

Unproductive behaviors will not self-correct. Too often organizations indirectly contribute to bad behavior by rewarding solely on results while ignoring behaviors. They have internal incentive programs, which reward individual performance and ignore teamwork and organizational citizenship. This promotes the individual over the organization. This is similar to a sports team – loaded with talent, but fails to win. If your department is working at cross-purposes, then you end up with subpar performance.

Take for example a tricky situation where you have an employee who is very good at their specific job tasks but in the process of performing their duties, they tend to be difficult to work with and rub other departments the wrong way. This type of employee typically perceive that their particular position power resides with their specific job knowledge or expertise, which makes the organization dependent upon their specific knowledge.

These individuals tend to protect this arrangement by resisting any proceduralization of their jobs by saying it is too complicated with too many decision trees to properly document. They are uncooperative in training others or even showing others exactly what they do. They also tend to create specialized terminology that restricts others from understanding their assigned tasks. They perform their duties in a cloud of secrecy so it will appear more complex than it really is. They are typically bullies, uncooperative, and unwilling to share information. Unfortunately, these personality types are frequently an important cog in a process.

Fellow employees will avoid working with them. Either by going around them or doing it themselves. Even on the simplest of tasks, theses position power employees are a hassle to work with. Interacting with these prima donnas’ frequently leaves a bad taste. Many times it goes much deeper than this. On occasion employees may actually feel abused from their interaction with these position power individuals. Do you have any employees like this in your organization? If so, does management look the other way and tolerate this behavior to the determent of the organization?

Being technically skilled – does not automatically give an employee a pass for bad behavior. The old saying of, “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” is true here. Difficult employees create negative energy and disrupt the workplace. Unfortunately, they tend to be influencers and create dissatisfaction in other employees. Bad behavior begets bad behavior. This results in lower job satisfaction across the board that manifests itself into lower productivity and more problems for the organization. It will create a set of unintended cumbersome inefficient processes. For example, employees will find workarounds, rather than deal directly with certain employees. Workarounds require additional steps and the department becomes less efficient. Most people avoid direct conflict. They complain to others, but tend to avoid direct confrontation. Most organizations avoid dealing with these issues. They usually prefer to address these issues with quick fixes, a few lame apologizes and awkward workarounds. This approach fixes things for a short time, but only for a short time. In most cases, the problem employee reverts to form. Behaviors are sustainably more difficult to change than acquiring new skills.

Then the organization will be forced to yet once again deal with this dysfunctional behavior. This quick fix non-confrontational approach will result in one weak response after another weak response. Employees quickly recognize this as inadequate response and the organization loses precious credibility.   The employees are effectively left on their own to deal with this disruptive individual. Then the problem employee becomes more entrenched. Semi-ignoring the problem, will seriously degrade employee goodwill.

Behaviors matter – they are not isolated. Behaviors affect others. Behaviors are so important to an organization’s health that they are often expressed in the mission statement. This view is supported by a recent working paper from Harvard Business School, that identifies toxic workers as having an over-sized negative impact on an organization, according to the authors Dylan Minor, a visiting assistant professor at HBS, and Michael Housman, Chief Analytics Officer the Cornerstone On Demand.


Organizations tend to primarily focus on attracting and retaining superstar employees. Because, it is estimated that they contribute four times as much as the average employee. These prized employees also receive the majority of the organizations attention, opportunities and rewards.

However, as good as a superstar employees are – a THORNY employee (according to this study) costs more than a superstar contributes to an organization. This study calculates that avoiding a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer – specifically, avoiding a toxic worker was worth about $12,500 to $50,000 or more, but even the top 1% of superstar employees only added about $5,300 to the bottom line.

If a person’s corporate citizenship is really poor, they are going to be a poor employee – period. Organizational productivity would likely be greater if you hired a worker that was less productive, but had higher corporate citizenship.

Negativity, for some odd reason, has a stronger psychology impact than being positive. For example, losses leave a greater impression than gains. People remember negative statements more than positive statements. Resulting in negative employees having an outsized impact on an organization. Unfortunately, due to these factors toxic workers have a stronger imprint on a firm than even the highest performing non-toxic ones. Given these fact, organizations should give THORNY employees more thought and attention, because negativity is highly contagious.

The medical profession operates under a philosophy of first do no harm. And since, THORNY employees act like an insidious cancer they need to be quickly purged from the organization, before they cause serious harm.  Likewise, organizations need to avoid bad hires in order to protect the whole.

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photo credit: reynermedia sleeping worker via photopin (license)

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