Breaking up Is Hard to Do

leadership developmentSeveral of the companies I’ve been working with recently are struggling with underperforming employees. This has reminded me that dealing with this is one of the most difficult areas for leaders, especially when it’s a tough hiring market with low unemployment.

Let’s address a couple of myths. First, there is no “good time” to fire an employee. It’s always difficult for the employer and employee. It’s just one of those things that has to be done for the organization and the person. The right time is when you’ve exhausted all your development efforts to change the behavior of the individual, you’ve followed your disciplinary procedures, (verbal, written, support), and the employee is still not performing.

The second and more common myth is that you can “fix” someone’s behavior. Employees can learn new skills if they have the aptitude and willingness. They will not if they don’t want to. Ever tried to make a three-year-old do something they don’t want to? It never ends well. When an employee has been put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and during the timeframe has shown a willingness to improve behaviors, then quickly reverts back to the unacceptable behavior after the defined time period ends, you have a problem. Typically, unless you are willing to have a babysitter-style manager for them, you will continue to be frustrated and the employee will continue to underperform.

More often than not, it boils down to an employee being in the wrong position for their skill set or temperament, or their values don’t align with the organization’s. I don’t believe employees come to work every day expecting to underperform, but the combination of the environment and what they bring often leads to less than desirable results for all.

I’ve not met a business leader who likes letting someone go. First, as humans, we don’t like conflict and this is potentially huge conflict. Second, we do have empathy for the person and what this will do to their lives. Recognizing that it’s okay to feel terrible about it and that it’s the right thing to do often causes conflict within the leader, but it’s the way it is. So time to rip the bandage off and get it over with.

Think about the message you send to all the employees performing at or above standard who don’t get nearly the attention the underperformer does. How fair is it to them? I guarantee they are thinking about it and watching what you do. So bite the bullet, let the underperformer go in a short meeting, give them whatever feedback you feel appropriate, but don’t make them feel worse than they already do. Don’t argue or justify and be sure to give them some severance. Remember, it is a person sitting across from you, with hopes and dreams and you want to help them, just not in your company.

The most expensive time in your business is the gap between when you know you have a problem with an employee and when you actually deal with it. Letting someone go so they can find a better fit is a gift to them and to the rest of your workforce.