Question: Should we welcome back a former executive who left on bad terms?

A former member of our executive team, call him John, left the company (a well known regional market leader) after years of conflict with various members of the team. John is very talented and has deep industry knowledge, and while he delivered great metrics, he consistently exhibited bad behaviors that were contrary to the company's core values. His exit from the firm was long and rather ugly, and the dysfunction was apparent to the rest of the company. After his departure, the company continued to thrive without John's disruptive presence, and the mood of the office became consistently more positive.

10 months later, John is having difficulty finding work, and his non-compete is about to expire. He is hinting that he could go to a competitor, and at the same time asking us to consider taking him back. He says that he has seen the error in his ways and is a changed man.

Most of the team feels it would be destructive to the company's culture to bring John back, but one member of our team is asking us to reconsider. Should we be more willing to give him another chance?

10 Expert Insights

Well, there are three things that come to mind. The first is read the book "The No Asshole Rule"  by Robert Sutton who actually came up with a formula to show the cost to a company for having one, regardless of their high achievement. As you already noted there was a marked improvement in the office with the company still thriving.

Second, if he is hinting at going to a competitor, he's already revealing his nature underneath. It's a threat, veiled or not, and do you really want someone like that working for you?

Third, if you do consider taking him back under what groundrules, conditions/metrics would you do so?  Clearly the demonstration of "I'm a changed man" would need to be significant as well as a trial period of some kind. Granted he could show up as 'good boy' for the period and then shift but he would need to know his behavior is under a microscope.  These conditions might be generated by the team he abused in his interactions since they'd be working with and around him. It would also be useful for him to be in a forum where that same team could "clear" the residual baggage they have with him. It would be useful if that was a facilitated process, handled by someone outside the company so the appearance of agenda would be absent.

Fourth, the notion that you have some concern about him going to a competitor speaks more about your sense of your own company's ability to successfully compete. You might look at how you hold your assessment of your own team, you might be accurate and if so, it's time for an upgrade in some way, either in training, or product. If you're holding them as 'less than' and they're not then that's a frame you personally will need to handle, underestimating one's team never bodes well.

Lastly, the question is, if he does come back, given that 'most of the team feels it would be destructive' what message does that send to them about how important their input is? They may well feel that they've been diminished in comparison to him.


What has John done to shift himself, and what evidence is there that the shift is sustainable?

If there's compelling evidence...and it needs to be it worth the value to your company for team members to overcome past experiences and support John?  There's a statement you'd be making, also, and how does that relate to company core values.  What you don't want: "we felt bad for John and so decided to tolerate the same behavior that got him fired."  What you might want "growth is an important part of our core values, and we are a place where people at every level, if they show they can earn it, can have opportunities to overcome past mistakes."  If there isn't a story to be told that this is aligned with core values, don't do it.  And it has to be a story that fits the facts, not a fairy tale.

I'd also hesitate to make this transition without some support for John and for at least key members of the executive team as well.  If John made this shift with the aid of a coach, he/she is likely a good resource for John.  But it's likely he'll do something at least with the appearance of old behavior, or maybe regress  in an extreme circumstance, and you need to find a way for the company to help maintain the shift.  (And, to get out of this if, despite best efforts, it doesn't work.)

Finally, I'd give the folks historically most at odds with John, a lot of weight in making this decision.  They're the ones who most have to champion his return, and if John can't make them allies it isn't likely to work.

All of that said, if it makes sense to go ahead, this would be an exciting project to support.  Good luck.

It is very rare for an "Ask a Mentor" question to have such a simple and obvious answer, but this one is a no-brainer (and I very rarely, if ever, use this term as most questions are not obvious and have varying levels of complexity). But the answer to this question is: "NO"...with a capital N. And a capital O as well.

My colleagues (above) all provided excellent responses, and Michael Stratford beat me to the punch by mentioning the book, "The No A-hole Rule" which was, coincidentally, the very first thing I thought of upon reading this question.

The guy is toxic. And after everything it took to finally get rid of him after what you describe as "years" (!) of conflict and dysfunction, there is absolutely no reason in the entire world to let this guy back in to once again infect your company, its culture, and its people. It sends the wrong message to everyone else, and you've gotten along fine without him since. So just say "no thank you," get back to work, and don't give this guy a second thought.

In fact, the best thing for you and your company would be to LET (and even encourage) this guy go to a competitor! Let him sink THEIR ship!

There are so many good, smart, experienced, and passionate people out there looking for work. They may not have this guy's level of experience. But I would take a smart person with a positive attitude over a bad apple every single time.

There's a classic Harvard Business School case study called, "What a Star, What a Jerk" that deals with the difficult decision of what to do when your top performer is an ass. In that scenario, the hard part is deciding whether to keep him or let him go. But you've already made that decision, taken action, and moved on with your life! So congratulations...he's not your problema anymore.

So rejoice in that, move on without looking back, and sleep well in knowing that you made the right call.

You've received some very sound suggestions from my colleagues.  I am inclined to offer questions to you as you consider the possibility of bringing John back into the organization.
1. John's past history at the company created a lot of unrest and dysfunction within the team.  What are the possible
        impacts of bringing him back … on the team and the organization … positive and negative?
2. What do you need to do in order to get the current team on board with the idea of his return and how realistic is that?
3. You have continued to thrive in John’s absence.  What does his return offer as added value?
4. If his approach to asking to return is accompanied by a ‘threat’ to work for a competitive company, how does that inform
        you about John, his sincerity and loyalty?
5. How does John’s suggesting that he will go to a competitive company serve you as an ally … to enable you , along with
        your team, to ramp up your product/service and take it higher and thus diminish the threat of the competition?

Provided your answers to the above considerations result in the team being in favor of his return, I am in complete agreement with others who indicated John’s need for coaching.  This works only when John as the client understands his need for this and enthusiastically embraces the process.

It's a bad idea.  What is best for the group is best for the company.  If you bring him back, the group trust will be diminished.  If his knowledge is critical, have him consult on an as needed basis.  

If you are willing to reconsider, coaching this individual is a must, and it has to be part and parcel of hiring him back. Him saying that he is a changed man, should not be the measure.

One of the most difficult tasks for a business leader is removing an employee from the organization. It is also one of the most critical aspects of a leader's role. Firing someone is hard enough when that someone is neither technically competent nor culturally suited to the organization. When that person is technically outstanding but a cultural misfit, many leaders are so afraid of letting go of that technical performance, they will tolerate behaviors that conflict with org values. Only when that person leaves does it become apparent how detrimental to organizational culture and overall performance he had been.

We know from Alexander Pope that "To err is human; to forgive, divine." This is excellent counsel for an individual, but I do not believe that is the case for an organization. The organization has had plenty of experience with John's behaviors to know what to expect of him.  He claims to be a changed man. The risk assessment in considering whether to take him back into the organization must weigh his words against his known behaviors. There must also be consideration of a given: many in the organization will be dismayed at the prospect of John's returning, and that will very likely impact performance, at least in the short term.

The risk of John's joining a competitor and making them stronger, which is by no means guaranteed, seems far outweighed by the risk of his return disrupting the company's performance and long-term success.


No.  Big no. John is an ex-employee who demonstrated low social and emotional intelligence.  Look at the data: 75% of a leader's effectiveness flows from emotional competencies.  And see all the prior posts -- you will send a very bad message to your surviving staff.  

Your responsibility is to the organization, not to John.  

One more thought:  Heck, let him go to a competitor.  Just think about how much ground you can gain on them while they are distracted with removing him from their organization in a few months?!

I have an observation and a question or two.

People can easily say they've seen the error of their ways and might attempt to demonstrate that interimly...

Beyond his words, what would reliably indicate to you that he has changed?

What are the metrics that would show he has made a permanent change vs. a desperation "i'll say or do anything just so long as I'm not out of work" change?

What would your answer be if you had no fear at all about him going to a competitor?