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Help an Underperforming Employee Move On

Being in the wrong job feels terrible. It’s not unlike being in the wrong romantic relationship, group of friends, or neighborhood. We feel misplaced. Everything is a struggle. Feeling like we don’t fit and can’t be successful is one of the worst feelings in the world.

The ideal situation is for an underperforming employee to decide to move on. But when this doesn’t happen, managers need to help employees make a change.

The first step in helping an underperforming employee move on to something where s/he can be more successful is to accept that giving negative feedback and managing employee performance is not unkind. When managers have an underperforming employee, they often think it isn’t nice to say something. Managers don’t want to hurt employees’ feelings or deal with their defensive reactions. In fact, when we help someone move on to a job that she will enjoy and where she can excel, we do the employee a favor. We set her free from a difficult situation that she was not able to leave out of her own volition.

I get asked the question “How do I know when it’s time to let an employee go?” a lot.

Here’s what I teach managers in our managing employee performance training programs: There are four reasons employees don’t do what they need to do:

  1.  They don’t know how.
  2. They don’t think they know how.
  3. They don’t want to.
  4. They can’t. Even with coaching and training, they don’t have the ability to do what you’re asking.

Numbers one and two are coachable. With the right training and coaching, employees will likely be able to do what you’re asking them to do.

Numbers three and four are less coachable and are likely not trainable.

When you’re confronted with someone who simply can’t do what you need them to do, it’s time to help the person make a change.

The way you discover whether or not someone can do something is to:

  1. Set clear expectations
  2. Observe performance
  3. Train, coach, and give feedback
  4. Observe performance
  5. Train, coach and give feedback
  6. Observe performance
  7. Train, coach and give feedback

Welcome to management.

After you’ve trained, coached, and given feedback for a period of time, and the person still can’t do what you’re asking her to do, it’s time to make a change.

 Making a change does not mean firing someone. You have options:

  1. Take away responsibilities the person can’t do well and give him other things that he can do well.
  2. Rotate the person to a different job.

Firing someone is always a last resort.

Sometimes we get too attached to job descriptions. The job description outlines a specific responsibility that the person can’t do. So we fire the person versus considering, who else in the organization can do that task? Be open-minded. If you have a person who is engaged, committed, and able to do most of her job, be flexible and creative. Give away parts of the job to someone who can do them well. I’ve also seen employees who were failing thrive in a different job. Organizations that are flexible survive; organizations that are rigid do not.

underperforming employee

Let’s say you’ve stripped away the parts of the job that an underperforming employee can do well, and she still can’t perform effectively. Now it’s time to make a change.

Here are some words to use when having the difficult “it’s time to move on” conversation:

“I really want you on my team and to be successful in our organization. Over the past six months, we’ve had several conversations about the parts of your job that are a struggle. We’ve taken away responsibilities that aren’t a fit for you and have replaced those responsibilities with things that seemed like a better fit. And yet I can see that you are still struggling. I’m very sorry to say that it’s not appropriate for you to continue working here. Today is your last day.” Depending on your organizational culture, can also say, “How do you want to handle this? You can resign or we can let you go. I’ll do whatever feels more comfortable for you.”

This is a difficult conversation that no manager wants to have. Yet I promise you, this conversation feels better to your employee than suffering in a job in which s/he can’t be successful. After you’ve set expectations, observed performance, and coached and given feedback repeatedly, letting someone go is kinder than letting the employee flounder in a job in which he cannot be successful.

underperforming employee

 

About 

Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.

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