Managing Prima Donnas

Do you know what a Prima Donna is? Of course you do – in HR we bump up across them all the time. The employee who thinks the rules don’t apply to her. Or the one who thinks he brings so much to the company that he shouldn’t have to follow the rules. They question everything, always look for loopholes, and generally make HR (and everyone around them) a little crazy. The definition of this employee is: a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team. Dealing with this person is tough, but as HR we understand that we have to hold them accountable for the good of the team.

But there is another dictionary definition of Prima Donna, and this one is much tougher to handle: a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization. The Prima Donna is the lead. She’s the fat lady that has to sing before the opera can end. The show revolves around her. And she can be the toughest employee to deal with, because she honestly does bring so much to the organization.

You know who I’m talking about. The sales rep who brings in three times the revenue of the rest of the team. The consultant that every client asks for by name. The mechanic who can fix any problem on any car, no matter what. These are the super-talented individuals that become part of your corporate differentiation – they make significant contributions to your business. But… maybe they don’t come to work on time. Or they think mandatory meetings are for everyone else. Their reports are sloppy, or incomplete. Things you might not let slide for your average employee, but these folks are, in some major ways, above average.

Prima Donnas remind me of a kid who never does her homework but aces every test. The teacher doesn’t want to give her an A, and yet…  We want to hold them accountable, but we also don’t want to lose them over a nonessential issue. So what if they are 30 minutes late every day, if they are producing more work than every coworker? But wait – what if those coworkers become disgruntled over your show of favoritism?

What do you do? Do you hold them to the same performance measures as everyone else? Do you let them slide on some things, but not on others? Do you let them get away with everything? It’s a delicate negotiating balance between the bottom line contributions and overall company morale.

Sometimes, you can give that Prima Donna some special exceptions, especially when their contribution is clearly evident. People complain that the top sales rep skips meetings? Tell them when they equal his revenue they will be excused from meetings, too. Of course, if the meeting is so non-essential that you don’t mind him missing it, you might want to rethink whether the meeting is necessary at all.

But sometimes their extra value is less obvious, or the exceptions they want are unreasonable. It’s important to remember that, in the end, no one is irreplaceable. If the overall impact to the team becomes so negative that overall performance suffers, then one Prima Donna’s performance won’t be enough to carry the company.

What is HR’s role in this performance management? How do you counsel the Prima Donna’s manager? I’ve not found an easy answer, have you?

One thought on “Managing Prima Donnas

  1. In law, it’s called prosecutorial discretion. It’s why someone doesn’t get ticketed for jay walking, even if they do it in front of a police car. There are so many rules to enforce, from Federal and State laws regarding the workplace, to corporate functioning to corporate culture. Sometimes, you have to pick your battles, and if you allow a highly effective employee to skip a meeting, perhaps you can allow a less effective employee to have some other compensation. The worst case I ever had as a manager, before working in HR, was when several people wanted to take off the day after Thanksgiving. The company’s rules were clear – seniority wins out over title, and anyone who applied for the day early got it. We wound up having people applying for that day in Spring. No one was willing to give an inch. When I fell back on the company’s rules, an unhappy employee escalated the issue to a senior VP. Although the VP sided with me, it was a miserable experience. It would have helped if HR had given more flexible guidelines, such as alternating years for preferential treatment.


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