Have I been trapped by my employee?

Question:

I run a small public relations firm. When I advertised for a new hire, I didn’t find anyone who had the right skill set. “Will” applied. Although he lacked the skills I sought, he interviewed well and said he was willing to learn everything necessary to become my No. 1 employee. I took a chance on him and invested months in training him. He shadowed me, developed rapport with my key clients, and learned strategies I’d spent 20 years developing.

We had one skirmish. When he found out how much I was paying his predecessor, he lobbied fiercely for a raise. Although his work didn’t justify the salary I was already paying him, he had good natural talent and I didn’t want to start over with a new employee. I gave him a raise that was more than I felt he was worth. Despite this, he resented that he was paid less than his predecessor — even though that individual brought in work and didn’t need the hand-holding I gave Will.

After five months, I told Will he was ready to take on his own projects. In that discussion he asked me how much he could anticipate making if his performance was stellar. I told him his salary could double in two years.

His “thank you so much for our salary discussion” email arrived the next day, as did his email to our bookkeeper saying he was changing his withholding tax given his significant raise. I immediately thought there’d been a misunderstanding. That’s when I got the shock of my life. He pulled out his smartphone, hit play and I heard my voice saying, “Your salary can double.” I asked “where’s the rest of that sentence” and he said “what rest?” He then told me if I didn’t pay him what he felt he was worth, he’d start a rival business. I reminded him we had a non-compete and he told me that if I reneged on our salary agreement, it invalidates his non-compete.

I’m really up against it. Should I try to work this out and keep him? If he starts his own agency, I may lose several key clients because I’ve talked him up to them. What do I do?

Answer:

You’re being scammed and your employee is trying to back you into a corner.

He excels at sales. He sold you on hiring him and then raising his salary. He’s now threatening you with competition and you’re actually considering keeping him on board, despite his patent dishonesty. It’s time to cut your losses and stop letting this employee bulldoze you.

Although your employee thinks he’s pulled a fast one, a specialist may be able to prove he edited the salary discussion tape. Further, as attorney turned HR on-call consultant Rick Birdsall notes, the words “salary can double” doesn’t constitute a promise because there’s no “when.”

According to Birdsall: “You employ a manipulative individual who appears to be thinking three moves ahead. You need to do this as well. Your employee has undoubtedly already taken off-site proprietary client information to start up his own business. You need to ask your IT professional to end your employee’s access to proprietary material. You also need to consult with an attorney to ensure your employee doesn’t use your proprietary information to compete against you.” Your attorney will likely also reassure you that your employee’s smartphone strategy doesn’t invalidate a legitimate non-compete agreement.

What should you do?

Focus on your clients and make sure they’re taken care of. Even if your employee starts a competing business, he won’t last long if he treats clients like he’s treated you.

Finally, ask yourself, “What’s it going to take for me to rise to the challenge?” And then rise.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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