ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

The Bad Apple

We are often called to consult with agencies when their owners realize that their staff is not happy, their agencies have become “Pressure Cookers” and they are experiencing surprising turnover. Their request to us is to find out why a formerly peaceful, happy place to work has become so difficult and stressful.

No agent wants their business to be viewed as a tense, nerve-racking place to work. They know that the tenor of the business is clearly seen by the clients and other people who deal with the agency every day. Unfortunately, like a pressure cooker, these situations don’t arise quickly nor are caused by one action. Businesses whose employees enjoyed coming to work, and who worked well together, stop having fun and begin to complain at home if not at work. Tardiness and absenteeism occurs where none has been common before. And the owner is often the last to know.

Agency owners want to believe that their businesses are on an even keel and run like clockwork. They concern themselves with client and personal matters and don’t see the changes taking place under their own noses. Sometimes they realize that something is wrong when emotional arguments arise that have always been simple disagreements in the past. Things that employees could easily work out amongst themselves in the past become monster problems that divide the office and bring owners and sometimes clients, into the fray. Feelings get hurt and when you try to resolve the problem the participants’ emotions bring other issues into the discussion.

If you have been witness or participant to this type of emotional outburst – one in which the discussion drifts from the original problem to one or many other issues that are on the participants’ minds – you are living in a ‘Pressure Cooker’ environment and need to seek the cause and a permanent resolution.

Some owners remain unconscious of the struggles that go on in their agencies until a crisis occurs. That crisis is often the departure of a key employee for reasons that are suspicious. If the owner does not wake up when this occurs, someone must hit him over the head with a frying pan!

Staff members retire, but not without notice. Staff members move with their families – again, with notice, but relocation is a reasonable and uncontrollable cause for turnover. And some staff members are led away to another agency by advancement and/or compensation increases. But this reason must be fully analyzed by the agency owner at the exit interview if not before. Why was the employee open to discussion about a new position? Most satisfied employees are not “shopping” for a job and would stop any offers in their tracks fearing that their employer would find out and think they were unhappy and seeking a change. So, if an employee takes another local job, especially without approaching the agency manager or owner with the fact that offers are being made, the agency owner must suspect that there are reasons within the agency that may be leading employees to either seek other employment – or at least be open to discussion by competitors about a move.

One major reason for turnover and attitude changes in an agency is the owner or owners. Owner disputes rarely stay behind closed doors. One or more owners talk about each other with “trusted” employees and the result is a stressed condition for the owners, the employees and the agency in general. The owners may eventually resolve their differences or not, but the employees never share in the resolution, so they remain stressed, thinking that a dispute continues, when the situation has been resolved. Eventually the stress leads to discontent and turnover. The employees lose faith in the agency and its owners.

The resolution to this issue is simple. Keep any owner disputes behind closed doors. Do not include ANY employees in the dispute. Argue, negotiate and conclude the problems without any employees aware that it even existed. I know this is easier said than done, but no owner wants his stress to be transferred to employees, clients or carriers. It’s bad for business. If owner problems grow beyond tolerance, call us or get professional help in seeking a solution.

A more insidious reason for a ‘Pressure Cooker’ agency is the Bad Apple, an employee who feels threatened, unappreciated or wronged – or a Joan-of-Arc character who thinks that they are the lynchpin of the agency without whom the agency would falter. This individual may have been the agency’s most valuable asset at one time but may be burning out and is seeking any cause of the deterioration in performance – any reason besides them.

This begins when employees who have been friendly and professional with each other notice that one employee has started taking herself too seriously. She may be in formal or informal authority in the agency and sees other, younger employees getting the attention and praise that she was used to receiving in the past. Where she was always helpful and cooperative in the past, she may become more authoritarian, doing her work and expecting others to do theirs without the benefit of her assistance. Where she was the ‘problem solver’ in the past, not getting the managers or owners involved in correcting and re-training issues to eliminate problems, she now reports problems and errors committed by others.

As the problem progresses, she shifts from cooperative to accusing and complaining about others. She may still be the agency’s “early bird” and work later than other employees, but, if you really look at her work, it is slipping and she is less concise than she had been in the past.

This employee, once the shiny apple in the barrel, is becoming marked and spoiled. If you, as an owner, can recognize the symptoms of a “Bad Apple” early enough you can intervene and have a chance of saving the situation. An intervention on a piece of fruit is rarely worth the time. You have to cut out the bad part, treat the area of the wound and preserve the fruit. But people are much more valuable than apples. If someone has been with you for years and has been your “right hand” and a trusted employee, you should take the time and effort to identify the real problem (not the symptoms), solve them without harming any other employees and regain the equilibrium of the agency and the value and relationship with a valued employee – if you can. However, NEVER let historical value influence a spoiled relationship that is hurting your other employees and your agency. In a worst case scenario I have seen an agent ask a long-time valued employee who had become spoiled to leave the agency and paid them until they were eligible for social security or found another job. The agent felt so strongly about the value of the employee during the forming years of the agency that when the employee became overshadowed by more competent new employees and became bitter as a result, the agent felt that he should guarantee the security of the employee, but not at the cost of losing the other employees or harming the agency.

This rehabilitation is less likely if the offending employee were not a long-term valued member of the staff. This is another reason that personality testing prospective staff members is so valuable. Imagine if you could have caught the fact that a potential employee may like to “stir the pot” to divert attention from her to other employees – before you hired her. Would that have been worth the $100 - $175 cost of a test? I think so!

Just remember, you can’t save a Bad Apple because it was once shiny and fresh. If you leave it in the barrel, it will quickly spoil all of the other apples. Either you cut out the wounded part, treat it and preserve it or you must eliminate it for the sake of the entire barrel. Similarly, if you are a professional manager, you should seek to solve employee problems and save your staff members. Once you commit to hiring a staff member, you create a responsibility to make that person as successful as you hoped they would be when they were hired. But if that is not possible, save the rest of the “apples” in your “barrel” and make your agency a good place to work again.