When to give up on a poor performer
I am a firm believer that an empty seat is always better than a seat filled by an underperformer. I’ve inherited teams and had the chance to build my own. I’ve managed rock-star performers and employees who are one paycheck away from the chopping block. I’ve learned a lot from working with both.
We all know that poor performers have a negative impact on the rest of the team. They are also an incredible time suck on managers. As a manager, how much time do you want to spend trying to fix the mistakes of your underperformer? Wouldn’t you prefer to be working with the rest of your team, helping them develop and excel? These are easy questions to answer but they force us to make tough decisions.
Poor performers can also impact the way that others perceive you. As a manager, it is important to make quick, decisive decisions. If you let a poor performer linger on the team, others will question your judgement and your decision making skills.
You may even feel bad. You are a good manager who tries to make ethical decisions. You’ve bent over backward to try to help the underperformer on your team – given them second chances, overlooked errors, ignored them when they came in late, left early or called in sick (again!). Despite your best efforts, some people don’t know how to help themselves.
An empty seat is always better than a seat filled by an underperformer.
“If I fire him or her, who will do all of their work?” This is a reasonable question that I’ve heard from many managers and one that I’ve faced myself. Just remember that the buck stops with you. Any subpar work executed by your team will ultimately come back to bite you. You are responsible for the output and quality. Frankly, you are simply too busy to monitor every little task that your team is doing. You may be across the big things, but there could be millions of small things just under the surface that are impacting your team’s reputation. When we terminated an overt underperformer from our Singapore team, there were many problems that we had to deal with immediately. But within days, we uncovered a treasure trove of additional problems that he had created. It was a shock but it was also a valuable lesson. If you are doing the work yourself, then you can control the quality. If you are responding to the clients, then you know what they are being told and what promises are being made. I know this isn’t always possible in today’s workplace, where many executives double or even triple-hat. But it can be the best option, particularly if it is for a short period of time and if there is a succession plan in place.
I am an advocate of properly managing underperformers through the performance management process, a performance improvement plan (PIP), or similar. Every employee should be given a fair chance to succeed. Indeed, in many countries, you are legally obligated to provide and document your efforts to assist underperforming employees. However, there are times when it is obvious that all of the traditional methods will not work. Or you know that an employee will pick up their game just enough to meet the objectives of the PIP, and then slack off again as soon as it ends. You may then find yourself on an endless, frustrating merry-go-round of lackluster performance. No manager has time for this.
If you feel you’ve done everything you can, you have to pull the plug and you have to do it fast. You’ll know when to give up on your underperformer if they possess any of these three characteristics (and if they have all three, stop reading and show them to the door immediately!).
An employee who thinks deadlines don’t apply to them, can’t bother to read emails or return phone calls, or watches the minute hand tick toward 6:00pm is not someone you want on your team. I don’t expect employees to work crazy overtime or neglect personal commitments, but when you are at work, work should be the priority. And getting work done on time and to a high quality should be normal, not an exceptional circumstance.
Lack of intelligence
As comedian Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.” Let’s face it: if you have an employee on your team who just cannot understand the work they are doing, the role they’ve been hired to do or the bigger picture, you’ve got a problem. Basic intelligence is sometimes difficult to ascertain during the interview process (particularly if your company doesn’t have a structured assessment) because some candidates have strong communication skills and can explain away all sorts of gaps in their CV’s. However, once someone is on the job, it is very difficult for them to hide their lack of intelligence.
This may trump the other two characteristics. If you are managing an employee with a bad or blasé attitude, no amount of training, development or 1:1 management time will make a difference. Employees choose their own paths. If they don’t care about the work or don’t care about producing a quality product, their tenure will be limited.
Laziness, lack of intelligence and a bad attitude form a dangerous trifecta. If you have someone like this on your team, move quickly to exit them. I’ve managed employees like this twice in my career. In the first case, after receiving several months of feedback, the employee was exited (he was not surprised). Despite having more work in the short-term, his departure actually decreased my stress levels and increased client satisfaction. Eventually, I hired an excellent replacement: the difference was like night and day. In the second case, I was told to terminate a poor performer, but was not given the option to replace the role. I chose to retain the individual but regretted it in the long run. She continued to turn-in subpar work, snub deadlines and fail to comprehend even the most basic requests. My short-term fear of having to do more work outweighed my longer-term philosophy. An empty seat is always better than a seat filled by an underperformer.
What about you? Have you had challenging experiences with underperformers? Tell me how you have dealt with them in the past. Since I mentioned them here, next week I’ll talk about the basics of a performance improvement plan.
Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.
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