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? And how much time and effort should I invest in a performance improvement plan?

Let’s start by taking a look at an story.

Tom, Sara, and employee performance issues

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 the time came 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 a performance improvement plan in the past and on the edge of being fired three times but had always pulled it together long enough to fix her performance issues and 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 a performance improvement plan 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 performance issues, 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 through a performance improvement plan?
  • Am I investing my coaching time where it will best serve the individual, the team, and the company?

If you’ve answered these questions and have decided to coach an employee with performance issues, make a plan with a time limit.

A Pathway to Employee Performance Improvement

  1. Have a frank conversation about the gaps you see between the results you want and the results he’s achieving in your one-on-one meetings.
  2. If you are both willing to work to close the gaps, develop a performance improvement plan. Evaluate training and skills-building options and agree when and how you’ll reassess progress.
  3. 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.
  4. When the employee doesn’t recognize the skills gap or there are behavioral problems, establish a performance improvement 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.
  5. Be ready to terminate employment if the employee isn’t willing or able to meet the goals of the plan.
    • Even for an experienced manager, it’s not a pleasant experience to fire people. If you follow the steps given above to address employee performance, it will, at the very least, not come as a surprise or make them feel they weren’t given a chance to address their performance issues.


So, 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, even after working through a performance improvement plan. 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?

12 Replies to “Managing a Struggling Employee”

  1. I don’t often take exception to your posts, but this one raises my hackles. Mainly because it seems to be perpetuating the egregious myth that employee’s performance is within their own purview. I remind readers of Deming’s 95% rule – 95% of an employee’s performance is consequence of the system within which they find themselves, and only 5% is generally due to their own motivation, commitment, etc.

    Also see: the Fundamental Attribution Error

    – Bob

    • Bob, I agree that the employees performance is directly related to the system they work in, and that creating a functional work system is management work.

      AND, there are people who perform above and below the limits of the system. They are exceptions, and should be handled as such. When managers fail to address employees who are dragging down the team, it’s horribly demotivating to the rest of the group.

      Some of the tests I apply are:

      Do other people in a similar position show the same behavior?

      If you put another individual in the same position, do you see the same behavior?

      If so, it’s probably a system problem.

      However, when an individual has shown the same pattern of interaction or skill across a variety of positions (as in this story), it’s probably an individual issue–but it’s still a management problem (a failure in hiring, a failure to make expectations clear….) and management has to deal with it.

    • Assume the manager has done a reasonable job of creating a work system. The team lead has clarified expectations. The manager has offered coaching and feedback to the individual. The individual still isn’t able (or willing) to do the work. It’s not a charity. Why would you not terminate employment?

        • That phasing may not fit for you.

          The term “firing” is loaded, and gets in the way because it sounds so harsh. I’ve met a lot of managers who get hung up on that, or worry about what will happen to the employee if they terminate his employment.

          In the vast majority of cases, the person they let go moves on to another job at another company. And often, they do better–either the company is a better fit, or losing a job is a wake up call and they change their behavior.

          You can move someone out of the company AND treat them with respect. But it’s not respectful to assume that another adult is incapable of taking care of his own life.

  2. I hear what you are saying Bob; there may be a need to invoke some change within the organization if we want this individual to succeed within it, but it also may not be an effective or even desirable situation.

    The person may not be right for the “system” you are working in… Changing it for one may not be the right thing for the rest either. It may not be that person’s fault, but it may be a situation where you need ot part ways. In the Tuckman’s model, the individual just isn’t the right fit in the team’s system to get to the team to through Norming to the Performing.

    At least that is my read on what Esther is saying.

  3. Yep. Even when you have a good work system, there will be people who perform below system capabilities, or have interpersonal skills that make everyone else miserable.

    It is a management problem–in hiring, training, work assignments, feedback, expectation setting…. And at some point, its time to part ways, as you point out.

  4. What if within the “5%” of the individuals motivation is a lack of awareness or willingness to evolve? Get well plans, reviews, goal setting, and explicit expectations go nowhere because the individual either doesn’t see or is unwilling to see the habits that create poor quality.

    This may be obvious, but I’m having trouble deciphering between patience/guidance and learning how to become a therapist.

    Or is this simpler than it sounds?

  5. Simpler. Therapist is not part of the job description for most managers. (Though you may choose to help an employee access employee assistance to find a therapist, if that is something your company offers.)

    If it’s clear that the person isn’t willing or able to follow through on a get well plan, end their employment with your company.

    If the person isn’t meeting the interim goals and checks of the plan, end it. There’s no sense dragging it out.

    If the person succeed with the get well plan, and once the plan is over falls back into the old pattern, terminate employment. (Assuming that the work system isn’t the problem.) Serial get well plans are a drain on everyone–the person on the plan, the manager, and the rest of the group/team.

    I consulted to one organization where they didn’t know how to move people out of the company. There was one guy there who did a good job–when someone else sat with him to help work out what needed to be done, help him stay focused, help him remember to finish, and reminded him not to check the races scores on the internet. They were so averse to terminating employment that they sacrificed another person’s contribution to make sure this guy did his work. Eventually, the sitter got tired of prodding the other guy to do his work, and moved on. His manager started sitting with him. Madness

    AND when this happens, you have to look at the management processes that allowed the situation to happen.

    Is your hiring process working?

    Are you managers communicating goals clearly?

    Are the goals reasonable?

    Do people have the appropriate training and skills?

    Does the work system support people to do they best work they can?

    Is it actually possible for people to get work done in the company? (I’ve visited some where it was nearly impossible to make forward progress.)

  6. Thanks Esther!

    This helps.

    Sometimes we avoid the simpler solution, based on it being harsh. And that’s definitely what’s going on here.

    • Hi, Fred-

      A get well plan doesn’t come with the first mistake. It’s a response to a pattern of problems that are within the control of the employee.

      It is emotionally difficult to terminate someone’s employment.

      And, I’m not sure it does anyone a favor to drag out a situation where someone isn’t doing his job, and isn’t willing to or capable of doing it.

      What alternative do you see?

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