How to Deal With Maverick Employees

26th June 2015

In the movies and on TV, the maverick cop is always the hero who doesn’t do things by the book but always solves the crime. Needless to say, in the office environment, the maverick employee is the last thing you need.

Or is it?

While companies spend years developing a set of procedures, a persona, a rulebook, it’s inevitable that every now and again an employee will come along and refuse to work the way you want them to. They might have a lackadaisical attitude to timekeeping, a tendency not to socialise with others, or they might treat your rulebook as a set of recommendations that can be overruled if they don’t suit them.

The natural response is often to take them to one side and give them a talking to, or perhaps to escalate things up the disciplinary ladder.

But it’s worth asking yourself a few questions about your maverick before you do these things first:

  • Is she brilliant at her job?
  • Does he get great results?
  • Do the clients love her?
  • Does he distract other workers?
  • Do other employees feel disgruntled because she gets treated inconsistently?
  • Are our rules wrong?

In reality, it’s often the mavericks who come up with the best ideas in the workplace. Sure, nobody wants a maverick nuclear power station technician, a rebellious heart surgeon or a wacky aviation engineer. But if you’re in the creative industries or any other industry where ignoring the rulebook probably won’t result in loss of life, it’s often worth thinking twice before disciplining the off-the-wall characters.

History is littered with great men and women who founded businesses or made life-changing discoveries simply by thinking differently. Most of them also come with a back-story that includes rejection by the straight-thinking people who surrounded them. The truth is that mavericks are often extraordinarily intelligent people who just look at things differently and don’t place much importance in “the way it’s always been”.

Now this isn’t to say we should treat everyone who doesn’t play by the rules as a genius. There are, of course, plenty of lazy employees and ones who are simply rebellious for the sake of it. And there are those who have problems outside of work that are affecting their ability to perform their jobs. They all need to be dealt with appropriately.

We’re talking here about the ones who have their own ways of doing things that are completely at odds to everyone else but who still manage to do it that much better.

There are those who might well be great performers but whose discipline is far off the mark, or whose behaviour makes it impossible for others to work with them. You’ll know when they cross the threshold, and they’ll have to be subjected to the same disciplinary procedures as everyone else.

Fitting in

So assuming you choose to benefit from the maverick’s outrageously good performance, your first problems might come in the way they are viewed by other employees. In short, they might not be too happy with the way the maverick appears to be given special privileges and do things that would land them in trouble. Indeed, if a habitual latecomer is disciplined but your favoured maverick gets away with it, they might have grounds for taking you to tribunal.

As with all human resource management, you’ll have to make sure you act in a consistent way with your employees, or to consider changing individuals’ contracts to permit different work patterns – again, all within the legal constraints that your HR department will be familiar with.

A Long, Hard Look at Yourself

Finally, it might be worth asking yourself whether the mavericks would only be considered as such in your business, by your own definitions. Perhaps the working environment has moved on while you were looking at your bottom line. There’s no doubt that the average workplace is a lot more relaxed than was the case ten, twenty years ago. Are you imposing your straight-laced procedures on everyone when it’s not really necessary?

It could be that everyone has an inner maverick, and given the flexibility, your most by-the-book employees could turn out to be bursting with ideas but are lacking the outlet to express them.

Maverick employees should be treated on a case-by-case basis, and should be considered in terms of their ROI to your company. Don’t dismiss them out of hand but make sure they’re able to work alongside other employees harmoniously; and accept that sometimes the fault might be closer to home than you think.