Managing a Struggling Employee

Sooner or later every manager faces the same dilemma: What do I do when I inherit or hire an employee who turns out to be a poor fit for the job?

Tom was the development manager for a supply chain product. He had an important project to deliver and was staffing up to meet the workload. The company had recently discontinued another product, InventoryPro, and HR was trying to find jobs for all the people who had been displaced within the company. When it was time to recruit candidates, Tom looked internally first .

Sara, one of the InventoryPro team, had the qualifications, at least on paper. But Sara also had a reputation for having bounced around the company for more than a decade. She’d been on “get well plans” and on the edge of being fired three times, but had always pulled it together long enough to climb out of probationary status.

Tom rationalized an explanation in his mind:

She just needs a fresh start. She’s bright and she’s got 12 years of experience. With the InventoryPro situation, I’d have to go through all sorts of hassle for an external hire when there’s someone from the InventoryPro team who could do the job.

So Sara started on the project. Tom—and the rest of the team—soon experienced first hand the behaviors that had landed Sara on employment probation three times.

Within three weeks, Jessica, the team lead, was in Tom’s office. “Tom, I’m worried about Sara’s impact on the project. Every meeting turns into a debate. It’s starting to wear on me and the team. Plus the work she does isn’t…well, it isn’t very good. I’ve had to ask her to redo 3 out of 5 deliverables so far. I’m worried that with Sara’s rework, we’re falling behind schedule.”

“You’ve got to give her a chance, Jessica,” Tom said. “Maybe she didn’t understand what she was supposed to do. She’s new to the team, after all.”

“I don’t know, Tom,” Jessica said. “I reviewed the completion criteria for each deliverable with her, and gave her examples from the last project. I wouldn’t expect to coach even a junior employee this much.”

“I’ll have a talk with her and sign her up for a communications skills class.” Tom said. “And I’ll talk to her about the quality of her work. But you need to cut her some slack and give her some time to fit in with the team.”

The next week, Jessica was back in Tom’s office. “It just isn’t working out with Sara,” Jessica said. “She sits through our work sessions glaring, and after the meeting tells the other team members how stupid my approach is. It’s really taking a toll on the team—they’re wasting energy bitching about Sara instead of working on the software! We’re definitely falling behind schedule!”

“I’ll bring Sara up to acceptable performance. I’ve never fired anyone,” Tom protested. “I’ll turn her around: I’ll meet with her every day to coach her.  It’s going to take time, Jessica. You need to be patient. ”

“How much time? How long before Tom decides he’s done enough to try to help Sara?” Jessica wondered.

Where to Begin

Tom made a poor tradeoff when he decided to avoid a hassle with HR and hire a person with a history of poor job performance. While Tom’s situation is extreme, sooner or later every manager is faced with a decision about how long to coach an employee who is struggling.

When you are faced with an employee who isn’t working out, ask yourself these questions:

How much rework am I willing to accept?

How much time am I willing to add to the schedule to accommodate poor-quality work?

What effect is this person having on the rest of the team? Am I willing to accept that effect?

What sort of message do I want to send to the rest of the team?

How much time am I personally willing and able to invest in coaching this employee?

Am I investing my coaching time where it will best serve the individual, the team, and the company?

If you’ve decided to coach an employee who is struggling, make a plan with a time limit.

Have a frank conversation about the gaps you see between the results you want and the results he’s achieving.

If you are both willing to work to close the gaps, develop a training and skills-building plan and agree when and how you’ll reassess progress.

If you don’t have other appropriate work and can’t accommodate the time investment to build skills, coach the employee out of your group. Your HR department may offer support to help him find another job internally or externally. Although it may be tempting to help the person yourself, don’t do it! You are not a job placement service, and getting involved in the job search will make it harder for you to fire the person if he doesn’t find other work outside your group in a reasonable amount of time.

When the employee doesn’t recognize the skills gap or there are behavioral problems, establish a “get well plan.” Determine the changes and actions that you’ll need to see and set a time frame. My preference is 30 – 60 days, with weekly checkpoints along the way. Your company may have specific guidelines, so check with your HR person or the company lawyer. Be ready to terminate employment if the employee isn’t willing or able to meet the goals of the plan.

What happened with Sara? Three months later, Jessica had moved Sara off the supply chain project. The team couldn’t recover the time and productivity they’d lost while Sara was on the team, but they were starting to settle in and re-gel.

Tom devised a one-person project for Sara to work on. It wasn’t really important work, but it kept Sara busy while Tom continued to follow up on her work and coach her twice a week. I doubt Tom will ever fire Sara, since doing so would admit he’d failed to bring her performance up to a suitable level.

Many managers, like Tom, have a hard time making the decision to stop coaching and move an employee on to another job inside or outside of the company. Some will spend months or even years accepting marginal performance and lowered productivity for the entire team rather than make a difficult decision.

Take a look at the bigger picture of the work to be done, the productivity and the morale of the team. Then ask yourself: Where should I invest my time?