In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a sailor kills an albatross that is following the ship, and because this bird was considered a good luck symbol, the rest of the crew forces him to hang the dead carcass around his neck as penance. Hence the expression “wearing an albatross around your neck.”

As consultants, we all too frequently see owners voluntarily carrying around an albatross: the high-maintenance client whose demands have stressed everybody out far beyond the reward of profit, the field worker who can’t arrive at the jobsite on time (or sober), the bookkeeper who constantly makes errors, or the project manager who thinks paperwork is unnecessary and can’t be bothered with change orders.

The Pain of Change

So why hang on to that incompetent employee? As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “change occurs when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing.”

High on the list of rationalizations is trust; owners are more afraid of larceny than incompetence. Other motivations are friendship, family ties, or just plain longevity. Owners often justify avoiding conflict in two ways:

  1. They don’t have time to deal with the hassle of firing somebody right now. This one is especially common when business is good and they don't want to be left short-handed.
  2. If they replace that person, they’ll probably just trade one hassle for another. So why bother?

But all too often we find that when you finally do cut that albatross free, the reaction from the rest of the crew is overwhelmingly positive; they’ll thank you and admit how demoralizing it was to see a co-worker getting away with shoddy work and poor attitude.

If you fear the cost of letting somebody go because it’s a hassle and it’s not guaranteed to make things better, consider the cost of allowing them to stay, continue to be non-productive or unpleasant, and to detract from the atmosphere of efficiency, competency, and professionalism you want your company to project.

So check to see if you’re wearing an albatross. It may be that cutting it loose will not only lighten your load but everyone else’s as well.