Managing Prima Donnas




You know what a Prima Donna is – in HR we come across them all the time. The employee who thinks the rules don’t apply to her, or that he’s so valuable he shouldn’t have to follow the rules. They question everything looking for loopholes, and generally make HR (and everyone) 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 know we must hold them accountable for the good of the team.
There is another dictionary definition of Prima Donna that’s more complicated: a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization. This Prima Donna is the lead. She’s the fat lady that must sing before the opera can end. She can be the toughest employee to deal with because she honestly brings so much value to the organization.
I’m talking about the sales rep who sells more than everyone else. The consultant clients request by name. The mechanic who can fix anything. The super-talented individuals that are part of your corporate differentiation by making significant contributions to your business. But… they come to work late. They think mandatory meetings are for everyone else. Their reports are sloppy, or incomplete. Things you wouldn’t let slide for your average employee, but these folks are, in some major ways, above average.
Prima Donnas are like the kid who doesn’t do homework but aces every test. The teacher doesn’t want to give her an A, but...  We want to hold them accountable, but we also don’t want to lose them over nonessential issues. So what if they’re always late – they produce more than every coworker! But what if those coworkers become disgruntled over your show of favoritism?
Should you hold them to the same performance measures as everyone else? Let them slide on some things? Get away with everything? It’s a delicate balance between bottom line contributions and company morale. Sometimes you can give that Prima Donna 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 can skip meetings, too. Of course, if the meeting is so non-essential he can miss it, maybe that meeting isn’t necessary at all.
But sometimes the exceptions become unreasonable. Remember, in the end no one is irreplaceable. If the overall impact to the team becomes so negative that overall performance suffers, one Prima Donna won’t be enough to carry the company.
What should HR do? How do you counsel the Prima Donna’s manager? I’ve not found an easy answer, have you? 




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