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How Long Do You Keep A Bad Employee?

As A Manager, You Must Deal With Underperformers Right Away.

By Steve Schumacher


I worked with a senior manager once who was having a hard time dealing with one of his employees. The employee rarely hit his goals, had a bad attitude and alienated people from other departments. His employees continually complained about him and the annual employee survey clearly showed his shortcomings.

I sat in a group meeting with the senior manager and his direct reports and the bad employee continually found reasons why new initiatives would not work. Whenever he would speak, the other people in the room would roll their eyes and show body language that clearly showed their dislike for the person.

When the meeting ended, I asked the senior manager why he keeps this bad employee around and he told me that it is easier to keep him than to fire him. Unfortunately, the process of terminating an employee was more cumbersome than dealing with his behavior.

At some point in your career, you will be faced with a similar situation. Hopefully, your situation will not be as extreme. When you have an employee that is clearly not going to make it on your team, there are some things to consider:

Look in the mirror. Ask yourself “Have I done everything I can to help this person improve?” If the answer is no, assess whether the performance that is below expectations is one of will, skill, or both.

If it is a question of skill, get the person more training and feedback. If it is a question of will, sit down and talk to the person about how their attitude and motivation is lacking and what can be done about it.

If the answer is yes, have a face-to-face conversation with the person and tell them exactly what it is that is wrong, and ask them for specific solutions. Put a specific action plan together to implement those solutions.

Make it clear to the employee that the next time the poor performance or behavior occurs that you will be forced to start disciplinary action. Of course, you have to follow-up on that statement, or it will become an idle threat.

Provide frequent, continuous follow-up. If you have identified a solid action plan, then you must follow-up on it frequently. As much as you may not like it, your job is to try to help the person.

Do not expect perfection overnight. They have agreed to an action plan, which is a start. The true test of you as a leader is whether or not you can turn this person around with your follow-up and coaching.

Look for small improvements. If the person has made the commitment to you that they will try to improve, believe them and watch for small changes in their behavior or results. It is imperative that whenever they make a positive change, you are there to provide them with some positive feedback.

When someone is deeply mired in poor performance, it is difficult to pull out of it and small movements coupled with positive feedback can make a big difference.

Set them up for success. Try to look for projects and tasks that you know the person can do well and be motivated about. This may move them out of their current job for a while, but you are looking for ways to give the person the opportunity to show you they can succeed.

Certainly, the tasks should be ones that lead to the company’s success. The modeling you are showing to other employees will go a long way is developing a culture of helping in your organization.

If all else fails, start progressive discipline. If, after all of your efforts, it becomes clear that the person is just not going to be successful on your team, it is time to get with HR and start whatever discipline process your company has. It is unfortunate that things get to this point, but sometimes people are better off not being on your team.

People will naturally make mistakes when working for you. When those mistakes become continual, you must act quickly to see if you can get the person back on-track. If you do not do this, that person’s poor performance will infect other employees. Your leadership with others will suffer also.

As a leader, keeping a high performing team sometimes requires releasing poor performers.