It’s frustrating and demoralizing to good employees when someone around them can’t or won’t do his job. If they have no power to change or replace him, their choice is either to adjust their standards downward or find another job. As a result a few incompetents or bad attitudes can have a devastating effect on a company.
Our employees know who isn’t doing his job. They’re waiting for signals from us whether such performance is acceptable. Almost all hope it’s not. And because non-performers make less effort to conceal their inadequacies from their co-workers than from their boss, co-workers typically wonder why we wait so long.
It’s tempting to believe an employee with bad habits can be coached and improved. Sometimes the needed change seems so logical, simple and important that it’s hard to imagine the offender wouldn’t understand and cooperate. And if an appeal to his logic fails, surely restructured compensation or threats and discipline will get through.
But such efforts typically yield little more than frustration and wasted time. They will occasionally cause a person to attempt changes, but the changes are virtually always short-lived.
Most habits and attitudes are no longer daily choices; they’re deeply imbedded in the personality. Personalities are like tempered steel; with enough pressure they can be bent temporarily, but as soon as the pressure is released they return to their natural states.
Occasionally an employee has a good attitude, wants to contribute, puts in sufficient time and effort, but simply can’t get the desired results. We could fire him but that seems cruel, perhaps even unfair since he’s done everything we’ve asked. And, after all, we made the hiring mistake.
When good attitude and effort don’t bring satisfactory results, the employee is in the wrong job—his personality and aptitudes are different than those required.
Motivation and drive are valuable, and can almost always be profitably employed. If we can find or create another job that better matches his personality and skills, he can often be turned into a loyal and profitable long-term employee.
If a better match for his abilities can’t be found within the company, perhaps we can help him find something more suitable outside.
Most employees are eager to participate and play a valuable role in the company. With training and an understanding of what’s to be accomplished, they gladly do their part, requiring only occasional assistance and guidance.
Others however are immature or have deep emotional problems and will not perform adequately on their own. These people are almost unemployable since constant supervision seldom makes economic sense, especially for their minimally acceptable efforts.
Helping employees recognize when their performance is inadequate avoids the unpleasantness, hard feelings, embarrassment, and legal complications of firing. Regular communication inspires those who are doing well to even better performance and encourages those who are sub-par to either improve or move on to work that better suits them.
We can initiate a candid conversation with an underperforming employee simply by asking how he thinks he’s doing. In most cases his own assessment will be pretty close; when it’s not, we have to clarify the expectations he has somehow missed.
In some cases he’ll make the adjustments, but often he just can’t change long term. After a few friendly consultations, he’ll almost always find something else to do. No one wants to stay where they aren’t respected and appreciated as team members.
The process is much less painful than firing. There’s no public embarrassment, no detrimental record, no co-worker resentment, and usually no long-term hard feelings.
Firing doesn’t require a long explanation, nor does a debate of the reasons and their merit serve any useful purpose. It should be simple, blameless, and respectful.
The best time is usually at the end of a workday when everyone else is leaving. In a quiet, private place simply tell the employee it didn’t work out. Extend to him whatever severance is appropriate. Then help him gather his things, walk him to the door, and wish him luck.
No further conversation is necessary. (With some exceptions by state and contract, most employment is considered “at-will”—either employer or employee may legally terminate employment whenever they like, with or without reason.)