Recently I got this question from a concerned business owner regarding an employee:

Dear Ellen,

My one and only employee is always pushing the boundaries. He knows he is supposed to keep his uniform shirt tucked in. Today, he showed up with his shirt untucked. Even worse, underneath his white shirt he was wearing a Metallica T-Shirt. I don’t want to go backwards. Is it worth firing him over or should I just suck it up?



This is my response:


Dear Near,

Alas! It’s time to put on your glasses. Not long ago, I invited business guru Al Levi to join me on one of my Radio Shows. Al and I have been friends forever and we often work together with the same clients. On the show, we shared our advice about having the difficult conversation. This is a talk with your employee about his poor performance. When to let it go…or let the employee go? What to do?

Al and I offered advice and got some great input from our Radio Show listeners. Here’s a sampling from our lively conversation…

El: How can you avoid having the difficult conversation in the first place?

Al: That reminds me of a poster we had on the wall of our office. It showed a cartoon of a guy trying to escape from the jaws of an alligator. The poster said, “It’s hard to remember the objective was to drain the swamp when you are butt deep in alligators.” The time to think about solving the problem is before you are butt deep in it.

Do you only talk to your employees about the things that are going wrong? Why not catch them doing something right? Acknowledge when they do the right things. Then, you will be more comfortable addressing the behaviors that are out of line. Your employees are like your kids. I don’t mean this in a negative way. El, you and I know that we still feel and act like kids…we are all kids at heart. We want to hear when we are doing the right things. And we want to know the rules of the game.

You may want your kid to keep his room clean. You’ve got to show him how to do it. Show him what a clean room looks like and how to get it that way. If your kid knows the rules and doesn’t clean his room, there have to be some negative consequences. With your employees, define the rules and hold them accountable.

El: What if you tell him 100 times to do something and he still doesn’t do it?

Al: Well, it has to be in writing. If it isn’t written, it isn’t real. And, hey, I am over 50. Who can remember anything?

Keep it clear and be willing to create a series of consequences, progressive discipline, to help him get back on track.

El: Let’s talk about the poop sandwich. This is where you surround the difficult conversation with praise and love. “You know I think you are wonderful and I appreciate all you do for us. I love it that you come in early and stay late when we get slammed with no-heat calls. Still, you have not been wearing your uniform and that’s not OK. And, stay beautiful, man. You are a key member of the team.” Love – thump – love. That’s a poop sandwich. What do you think about that?

Al: Oh, I have given poop sandwiches! Even worse, I have pulled a guy into my office to talk about the fact that he isn’t wearing his uniform and given him a raise! I’ve gotten smarter. Have regular conversations with your employees – 5 minutes – what’s going wrong, what’s going right. Stay in communication with the people who report to you.

And when we all know the rules, you can discuss behaviors objectively. I see you doing the right thing, or not, based on the written procedures.

El: So are you a fan of the year end review?

Al: NO. Imagine if I said to my kid, “Keep your room clean all year and in December we will go to Disneyland.” So she comes up to me in December and she is wearing her Mickey Mouse ears and is ready to go. Then, I say, “Well, remember on June 2nd your room was a mess? We aren’t going to Disneyland.”

Better to stay in daily, weekly communication with your team members.

El: Would you fire someone the first time he broke the rules? Or does he get a gimme? When do you look the other way…and when do you show him the door?

Al: First of all, make sure the expectation is clear. Suppose you show up and I say to you, “El, you are not in uniform today.”

El: “Oh, yes, I am wearing the uniform.”

Al: “No, you look like a slob.”</