How to handle a ‘whack-a-mole’ worker

As soon as “Martin” passed his probationary period, he began missing deadlines. When you asked him “what happened?” he gave you a logical explanation, but one that threw two long-term employees under the bus.

Next, he began sending you and his peers suggestions for systems that needed to change. Although two of Martin’s ideas had merit, each would have required substantial time to implement and you let him know that you wanted him to use the existing systems until he gained more familiarity with them. He then let you and others know he’d hoped for a more “progressive” organization when he’d accepted his position.

A month later, Martin met with you and outlined why he deserved a raise — particularly given he’d now completed your company’s full training program. Along with his request, he presented you a sheaf of information from sites that calculate average salaries. “We didn’t train you so you could ask for a raise,” you replied. “We trained you so you’d earn what we’re already paying you.”

During the next week, two other members of your team met with you to petition for raises, and you learned Martin had helpfully provided them documentation to plead their cases. As you turned down each of these requests, you worried: Would their disappointment lead them to begin cruising online job listings?

You called your manager and asked to meet with him to discuss Martin. That’s when you learned Martin had met with your boss, and outlined what he saw as deficiencies in your supervisory practices. You’re not perfect, so some of what Martin said rang true to both you and your boss. Two weeks later you and your boss agreed to terminate Martin. However, you’re still recovering from the damage done to your reputation as a supervisor and your team’s morale.

You’ve just encountered the whack-a-mole employee, an otherwise talented employee who creates problems in multiple ways. If you’re unlucky enough to have hired one, here are a few things you need to know.

Thrive on chaos

Whack-a-moles thrive on chaos, because it gives them latitude to perform or not, as they wish. These recreational antagonists particularly enjoy placing their supervisor on the hot seat and then sitting back and watching their supervisor squirm. To them, relentless critiquing is a game, and they’re delighted when their supervisor engages in an attempt to meet their needs.

Insane need to be me

Whack-a-moles have a “need to be me” and acknowledged as a “star” or smarter than others, and thus spend time and effort critiquing the organizational systems that others take for granted. Workplace consultant Jennifer Yuhas suggests corralling whack-a-moles by establishing a clear chain of command so their suggestions can’t disrupt your full workforce: “You can’t let a whack-a-mole turn this into a game where they exert control — and they will try.”


Jealousy eats many whack-a-moles alive from the inside out. If you supervise a whack-a-mole, realize that they long to throw you under the tank, because they want your position in the organizational structure

If you hire a whack-a-mole, you won’t escape unscathed, so don’t let one slip through your screening process. “I didn’t pay enough attention to what his past employer was really saying,” said Martin’s supervisor. “When Martin’s reference said, ‘I hope he finds a job where he’s happy,’ I thought that meant his past employer had Martin’s best interests at heart. Now I realize what he meant.”

Surviving the whack-a-mole

The ultimate in high-maintenance employees, whack-a-moles wear out their immediate supervisor, sometimes leading that supervisor to resign or make career-killing mistakes. Supervisors who recognize the problem, however, survive. Further, says workplace consultant Richard Birdsall, “you need to remember you’re here and your whack-a-mole isn’t. Even better, your whack-a-mole identified key areas where you can improve, and thus served as your ‘free’ coach.”

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at

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