Just as a cancer in a human destroys its host from within, so too does a cancer in an organization. The difference is that a cancer in an organization is more readily cured.
Every organization has them – negative employees that infect others around them. And that negativity can eventually destroy an organization completely. Restaurants have them perhaps more than most as there are natural conditions that cultivate such negativity: high pressure, long hours, hard work, a high percentage of staff that are not primary English speakers. And as with real cancer, the best way to treat a cancer in an organization is with prevention.
By recognizing the natural conditions that can create a negative environment, a restaurant manager is better prepared to protect his or her business from the effects of organizational cancer. Begin by accepting that your staff works hard and under often difficult circumstances. Don’t minimize or marginalize their efforts. Respect the work that they do and give them the support to succeed. A manager that does not appreciate and does not respect his or her staff could be the cause for the cancer to begin with! And understand that very frequently a cancerous team member may have justifiable reasons to be unhappy. Find out what they are by talking to your staff – especially the ones that are negative and breed negativity in others. That’s not to say that there aren’t employees that are just out-and-out bad employees: but let’s be honest with ourselves and take on the blame when a good employee turns sour, or when a potentially good employee turns out bad.
“Roberto does good work when he’s in a good mood.”
If you’ve heard yourself make a similar statement it’s time to ask yourself why Roberto is temperamental to begin with. Is it because he’s excitable or bipolar? Or is it because there are reasons regarding the workplace that bring on his moods? Ask yourself if his work environment is stable or unstable. As yourself if he is carrying the load for other staff members that are not as qualified or not as hard working. Ask yourself if your systems make it harder for him to do his job, or if the lack of systems where systems should be is creating unnecessary work burdens. Ask yourself if he seems to care more than his managers when something does not get done properly. The key point here is that we should not accept easy labels such as “Roberto is moody” but, rather, ask why he’s moody by peeling away the onion layers and then fixing situations where Roberto is understandably frustrated.
“If Sally had a better attitude, she’s be a great employee.”
What’s the difference between mood and attitude? Mood (for our purposes here at least) is something that is a reaction to a circumstance. A sunny day will put me in a good mood, a gloomy day can sometimes bring me down. Attitude, on the other hand, is a constant. For example: my attitude toward my restaurant customers is always appreciative (customers can go anywhere they like and they choose to come to me, so I appreciate that). Attitude is something, then, that manifests broadly when it comes to an individual. Someone with a positive attitude looks at the world as a glass half full while someone with a negative attitude always sees it half empty. Sally may have all of the technical skills to be a great server: she understands kitchen work flows and knows how to time her orders perfectly; she is efficient and can handle 50% more of a workload than her peers; she is never late and never calls out; etc. But Sally is by nature a negative person. She has a “bad attitude” that shows itself in her interactions with her coworkers, managers and even sometimes with guests. If this is the case, you need to make a decision as to whether or not Sally belongs on your team. Don’t take the easy road and say “yes” just because you need someone with her skills. Your answer may be “yes”, but if it is, it needs to be for the right reasons. If her negativity is infecting other team members, you need to understand that there are very real costs associated with keeping her. If she’s negative and keeps to herself, it’s one thing. But if she is continually infecting others, then you are inviting the cancer by keeping her around.
“Daniel needs to be terminated, even if he’s the best grill man we have.”
For me, this statement is a red flag regarding the manager who made it. Think about the statement and how it’s phrased. It’s definitive. Daniel needs to be terminated. And there is no way out. Even if Daniel is the best at what he does, he needs to go. Why? Make the manager list the reasons and listen very carefully to his answers. (If you are the manager, then do this exercise with yourself!) Daniels is always late – have you spoken to him about it one-on-one to understand why he’s late? Is he dropping his child off at school on the way in? Does he work late and come in early? Does he have a medical condition? Is his method of transportation unpredictable? Daniel thinks he knows more than me. Well, does he? Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses. If Daniel is your best grill man, I challenge you to prove that you or your manager knows more about the grill than Daniel. He does it every day. If you respect the fact that Daniel has content knowledge, then why would it bother you if he knows more than you? You should welcome this and recognize this.
At the end of the day, once you’ve peeled down the layers, if an employee is “rotten” or cancerous, then you should not keep them around too long as they will certainly have a negative impact on the entire organization. Figure it out, and once you do you must act on it.