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Business/Economy

In a business partnership with ‘the devil’? Here’s what to do.

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: February 18
  • Published February 18

Q: Sixteen months ago I lost my oil company job, but received enough severance to keep me afloat for more than a year. I'd always wanted to work for myself and felt this was my big chance. Even though I've never been a risk-taker, I started a small business.

I soon realized I needed an assistant because when I invested time in paperwork it took me away from the sales and marketing I needed to do. It scared me but I hired a part-time assistant and was quickly glad I'd decided to do so.

After three months, I learned how to do projections and didn't like what the figures showed. Even if I sold four times as much as I was selling, I'd not make enough of a profit to support myself before my savings ran out. The figures told the story: I either had to pay my suppliers less or charge my customers more.

I looked for lower-priced suppliers and tried to negotiate better deals, but struck out. When I raised prices, I got pushback and lost customers. I tried for a small-business loan, but the banker saw what I did and told me I had to find new vendors. Then, one of my neighbors introduced me to "Harvey." Harvey needed a job and agreed to work for me for a month. He handled the tough negotiations and it gave him a chance to find the caliber of job he wanted.

Harvey quickly became indispensable. He stayed on another month and after he set up my business with good deals with the right suppliers he began to help me sell to larger customers. I started to fear what would happen when he found his right job. That's when he made me a proposition. He wanted both a raise and a slice of my business.

I gave him both, fearing I wouldn't have a business without him. He wrote our agreement and at the time it looked good, because it simply gave him bonuses of both money and increasing shares of the business when our business and profits grew. In other words, if he made more money, it would be because I was making more money and the business was worth more.

That was a year ago. The aggressiveness I'd admired in Harvey when he negotiated with suppliers on my behalf doesn't feel so great when he turns it on me. He drove away my first assistant, who called him a bully. Her replacement gave notice last week. "Bully" is the nicest word she uses to describe him.

Now I feel I'm in partnership with the devil, and I don't know what to do. When I talk with Harvey he insists he's not the problem, but I know he is. I'm limited in my choices. I can pay him to leave, potentially crashing my business. I can sell him my share for almost nothing. Or I convince him to change — but can bullies change? Or, do I just endure?

A: Some say bullies can't change; that's not true. As evidence, many bullies turn on and off bullying behavior. In organizations, bullies often kiss up and kick down, presenting a charming, even subservient facade to senior managers and displaying attacking or intimidating behavior toward peers. In some marriages, a bully abuses his spouse, yet treats his children well.

Once you learn how bullies make their choices, you can act to change their behavior. Most bullies operate according to a risk/benefit ratio, which means if your bully believes he risks more than he wins by bullying you, he may change course.

Up until now, you've appeared an easy mark. You gave Harvey what he asked for, fearing you wouldn't have a business without him. You allowed him to drive away an employee. You now fear you're limited to no-win options, and Harvey undoubtedly senses this.

Visit a business attorney and outline what you've shared with me. You may have more options than you realize and you need this counsel. If you'd visited an attorney when Harvey first gave you his proposition involving increasing shares, you might have realized Harvey was flying you into a box canyon. At the least, your attorney can negotiate a more reasonable buyout for Harvey and you may learn that this doesn't crash your business. Your attorney can also negotiate a better exit package for you, if you choose to leave.

Finally, before you decide to "endure," ask yourself how you'll feel if you're in exactly this same position a year from now. If Harvey is indeed a bully, and not simply a skilled manipulator who possessed talents you lacked and needed, you'll increasingly lose your sense of self-worth if you stay enmeshed with him.

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