A reader writes:
The company I work for as the HR manager first of all is a small, family-run business and has employees who've been with us since day 1 (25 years ago) and have been loyal and worked long and hard to help us get to where we're at today. The problem is times and attitudes have changed since then - but they haven't. There's a serious conflict of old versus new - and behaviors that may have been overlooked 20-odd years ago are proving to be unacceptable but hard to break now. As a result, there's a serious rift in the office between "us" and "them," the "old" versus the "young/new."
These older individuals constantly butt heads with the newer ones and it has gotten personal on several occasions. Ultimately, it ends up adversely affecting the customer, which is of course a huge concern for management. The relationship that management has with these older persons is also a personal as well as professional one so it makes the situation even more delicate. The newer ones have genuinely tried to make amends but to no avail, and it's breeding hostility, resentment and all round bad faith and mistrust.
Management is at its wits end. We've spoken with both sides on several occasions. We've tried to impress upon the older staff that they should take the lead in setting things right (this hasn't happened). The younger decision-makers (like myself and my husband) are really of the opinion that we'd rather get rid of 2 people than lose 6 - but upper management feels very uneasy about letting these people go because of their long-standing relationship.
What's the next step now?
When I first received this letter, I couldn't tell whether either side had an actual performance problem, or whether it was just a case of the two sides not getting along with each other. I wrote back and asked, and the letter-writer responded that the older side has an attitude problem that often affects performance since both sides are dependent on each other for any given job.
So. Why is management at wit's end? Management has authority to change things; it's just choosing not to use it.
Your management is uneasy about letting long-term employees go. And they should be uneasy, based on the way they've handled this so far. Up until now, it sounds like you've tried to persuade the problem employees that they must change, trying to coax them into it -- instead of set clear, non-negotiable standards and setting clear consequences for not following those standards. So far, your employees don't believe your demands have any teeth, because by allowing the behaviors to continue after multiple conversations, you've signaled that you're not willing to enforce those rules. It wouldn't be fair to fire them without having explicitly told them that was a possibility.
Instead, someone (you or whoever in the organization has the authority to do it) needs to sit down with the problem employees (individually, not as a group) and tell them clearly what must change and what the consequences will be for not changing. Give specifics about what you need them to do differently, and explain that their jobs will be in jeopardy if they don't meet that bar. For instance: "We've talked about this in the past and we haven't seen the changes we need. It's now at the point where I need to tell you that if we don't see significant, immediate improvement in this area, we would have to let you go. You've been a good employee and I hope you will be here for many more years, but that won't happen if we don't get on the same page about this."
If they argue with you, nicely explain that this isn't their decision to make, and that if they're not able to work happily under those conditions, this may not be the right job for them. See this post for some ideas on this.
By the way, if your upper management won't agree to this -- if they won't agree to set and enforce consequences -- then they're choosing to live with the problem. If so, at that point, you should all stop being all wit's end because a deliberate decision will have been made to accept the behavior. And for all I know, maybe that's a reasonable decision; maybe the problem is annoying but not bad enough to warrant firing. Plenty of problems fit that category. (And maybe you want less serious consequences instead, like telling them it will affect future performance evaluations and raises.) But either way, you all need to get on the same page about it: Either there are serious consequences or there aren't.