Untie the Employee Hostage Knot

Untie the Employee Hostage Knot - Marshall Atkinson

Regardless of the size of your shop, your employees are the lifeblood of the company.  Without them, you would cease to perform or exist.

So what happens when you find yourself in an organizational crisis where one employee is holding your company “hostage”?

This can be in several forms.  

They have a skill you need (press or embroidery operator, digitizer, artist, accountant, salesperson, manager, etc.) without anyone poised on the bench to back them up.  By lack of training or hiring someone else to support their role, you’ve given them leverage over your shop.  “You can’t run this place without me!” is what they say.

Have you ever heard that?

Maybe they have been with you since “day one” and feel that they have an overwhelming sense of entitlement, even if they are just an hourly employee.  You don’t dare get rid of them, because it would feel like cutting off a toe or losing a friend.  The problem is, they know that.  That’s why they sometimes strut around like a barnyard rooster.  “Hey, I’m untouchable!”

You may not even recognize what’s going on, but your other employees do.  They resent the fact that this person gets special perks or their bizarre behavior gets overlooked.  Do people on your shop floor complain or make snarky remarks about them?  Do you shrug your shoulders and try to laugh it off?  “Hey, that’s just Fred…whattagoingtodo?”  Maybe you’ve even voiced your opinion out loud yourself a few times, but nothing ever happens.

You know better.

  • Despite a crazy workload with backed up orders on the schedule, what are you really saying to your crew when your production manager plays a round of golf every Friday with his buddies?
  • What about when you allow your salesperson to act like a jerk because you are too scared to confront him because he really brings in a lot of work for your shop?  
  • What happens do you think when you allow the office manager to bring their dog into work every day, despite the fact that some fellow office workers are allergic to dogs?  
  • What message are you sending to your crew when you allow your lead press operator to come in fifteen minutes late to work or more every day, but insist that everyone else show up on time?  
  • Do you keep your manager on staff even after they make a racist remark to someone they manage?  
  • There was a big shouting match on the production floor yesterday between one of your supervisors and a new employee.  Not a good look for your company.  What did you do about it?
  • Do you allow multiple people from the same family to work in your shop?  What happens when all of them want to take a vacation at the same time?  Does your shop screech to a halt that week?

You are treading dangerous waters by allowing these behaviors in your company to exist.  Do you have a plan to wrestle control back from the people in your shop that are selfishly slowly damaging it?  

Here are some strategies that might let you get control back:

First, you need to train other staff members in that person’s role in your company.  Call it back up.  State that it’s for when they are sick or on vacation.  Whatever.  The real reason is that you need to take their chip that they can play against you away.  

Start cross training multiple people in that person’s role as soon as you can.  I like having at least three people know any critical task so that spreads the knowledge base out a bit.  Once you have that coverage, you won’t feel like you are tied to that heavy anchor for much longer.  Remember, you aren’t letting that person go…you are just putting a control in place to diminish the leverage they have against your company.

Let’s say you only have one automatic press or embroidery machine operator in your shop.  When two other people know that equipment and can run it just as well, that person’s argument about giving them “extras” diminishes to nothing; and now will be squarely focused on their performance as it should be.

Secondly, what happens if your salesperson’s relationships with their clients is the only way you are doing business with them?  He knows it, so that’s why the thinks he is untouchable and pushes people around.  A way to resolve that challenge could be to tie the company to you with a written contract for some new negotiated terms.  Take the salesperson out of the big picture, and make the relationship more about your company and the benefits of working together.

Third, think about how you are handling compensation and employee reviews in general.  Have you ever given a raise to an employee not because they actually earned it…but because you can’t function without them?  That’s not a good position to be in, nor is it smart business.  If you do that once, that employee’s hand will always be sticking out asking for more.

One of the things you want to continually stress in your company is that you create and adhere to some published human resources policies for any type of personnel decision.  Create that employee handbook and outline the expectations that all of your employees are asked to follow.  Then, make sure you are doing what you’ve outlined.  

For compensation increases, there should be a policy and procedure as to what happens and tie that to an employee review.  Performance pay increases are all about merit.  Did they earn it or not?  Make the process transparent so the employee knows what they should be getting if they achieve the benchmarks that you’ve created.  These can be tied to the overall health of the company too.  Employees that are always demanding more than they really deserve can be frustrating.

For any of these employee hostage type scenarios, the more you bury your head in the sand and let the employee have leverage and control, the worse it is going to be for you later.  Especially if you want continuous improvement or meaningful change in your shop.  Don’t think that your other employees aren’t noticing the situation either.

A better way is to plan to take that control back by taking some necessary steps and planning some action.  Your employees can’t run the show with unwarranted demands.  Don’t let them.  It’s important to create a culture of excellence, by demonstrating that teamwork and performance goal achievement matters.

Get some tools in place to help you.  

Written job descriptions, an employee handbook, a performance review system, a robust cross training program, goal setting with targeted performance management, and company-wide reward and recognition programs; all of these can help mitigate that employee hostage situation.

If you don’t have back-up employees capable of performing or learning someone’s job because it’s a skill like art or accounting, look for availability to outsource it temporarily while you could hire a replacement should you need it.  There are plenty of freelancers or firms dedicated to helping in these areas.  Get that information, find out the costs and make a plan that you could use should you have to go that route.  Maybe you will never have to cash that chip in, but it’s good to have in your pocket should it work out that way.

Like any other challenge in your shop, plan the resolution and put it into action.  

“Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate and reward them.  If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.” – Lee Iacocca

“You can’t let your past hold your future hostage.”  LL Cool J

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein


  • Jorge Vieira

    Truth is, we’ve all had these problems. I know I’m guilty of a couple of these.

    Funny thing, we had one of those “indispensable” employees and I was so terrified of losing him that he just didn’t care about his job and still I had to raise his pay for him to stay. Finally let him go and now we’re A LOT better than we were. Working faster and smarter.
    It thaught me no one is indispensable.

  • Greg Kitson

    Wise words well spoken my friend.
    I am as guilty as anybody else of ignoring some of these guiding principals of successful leadership.
    Thanks for the reminder my friend.

    • Thanks Greg! Learning is a continual process…and sometimes you need a few lessons repeated to actually get them to sink in. Or at least that’s what I keep reading.

  • This is an excellent article. I can surely relate to every word that you have written here and I have had to let people go more than once because they thought they were totally indispensable! Every small business owner needs to take note of this, study it, print it out and keep it for a handy reference when they are even thinking about hiring someone to help them in any way!

Leave your comment

Talk to Marshall and get his help.
Learn More
View All Ebooks

Related Posts