We are not talking about actual suicide obviously, but the situation where an employee threatens to quit on you for no good reason. What should leaders do?

The global economy is not a bed of roses today, destabilized by political threats, military incursions, commodity manipulation, over-zealous pursuits of growth above reason, and so on. There are so many reasons to a hollowed out economy that it is less important for businesses to start wallowing in that, but to focus decisively on containing our own business operations to secure its sustainability and survival.

Against this backdrop of a gloomy economy, still there is a surprising minority of employees who believe they are extraordinary talents, and attempt to hold their employers at ransom.

Let us use the fictional example of a middle-aged executive Tom, who naively believe that he is a talent that the company he works for cannot do without. He marches into James, his CEO’s office, and threatened to quit unless he is treated or paid better. What should James the CEO do?

Let us assume there are two possibilities.

First, let us assume Tom is actually a talent of some kind, silly as that may sound as there are talents everywhere today, fighting for the few jobs today – just as the Chinese wisdom dictates – 僧多粥少. So should James the CEO keep Tom by offering better terms? The answer is no.

By placating to the inflated ego of Tom, James the CEO will forever be held at ransom because of a single misjudgment and action, and will find it hard to enforce discipline and loyalty from everyone in the company. Even if Tom is a real talent, there will be ample alternative candidates out there, and there will also be existing employees who can be groomed for promotion. Morale within the company will improve, and discipline can be adhered to for everyone. There should be no exceptions to the rules and ideals of a company.

Second, let us assume Tom is just a deluded man with little or no talent. Then, there is obviously no reason to placate to his ludicrous demands. James the CEO should summarily fire Tom, and announce to the company the reasons why. The employees will know that there should be a baseline to corporate discipline, and that teamwork is valued over prima donnas (talents or not). Team players will be rewarded.

There will always be atypical employees who commit career suicide. Such employees will often exhibit inflated egos, abrasive behavior towards others (especially those they deem lower on the corporate hierarchy compared to them), and demanding without reciprocal fulfillment of responsibilities. Such employees often demoralize other employees within the company if they are kept around, since other employees will deem the leaders inept in management.

Therefore, leaders should be incisive and decisive when such atypical employees surface, and if remedial actions are not possible, and when such employees threaten to quit, summarily let them go (殺一儆百).

The Chinese proverb says it best – 獨木不成林,單弦不成音 (loosely translated to: a single tree is not a forest, and neither would a single string make music). Therefore, it is far more important to keep the harmony of the rest of the employees who continue the machinery of the company, then to placate to the childish whines of the unworthy few.