Employers say it's worth it to work with underperforming staff

man holding box of belongings leaving his office
The last resort: move after all else has failed. (AndreyPopov/Getty)

It’s one of the toughest decisions in business: sticking with a subpar employee or letting that person go. Different companies act in different ways, with the outcome often a function of how hard a company is willing to work with the employee.

Steve Hunt, senior vice president of human capital management research at SAP SuccessFactors, has several recommendations for getting the employee on the right track:

  • Awareness. Understanding what they need to do differently in the future from what they did in the past. Often this has to be communicated in very clear, observable and specific terms.
  • Ability. The skills, knowledge and resources necessary to change their behaviors. This includes working in an environment that enables them to change.
  • Motivation. Understanding how making this change will benefit them. This can be in the form of accomplishing internal goals, gaining extrinsic rewards, or avoiding loss or punishment. Which is more important depends on the nature of the change and the individual.
  • Confidence. People must believe they can be successful. This is why feedback must be delivered carefully. If feedback is delivered well it increases awareness and builds confidence. If delivered poorly, it may increase awareness but also undermines confidence.

“The problem is most managers don’t know how to deliver feedback effectively, don’t take time to do it well, or they are not supported by the company in doing it,” Hunt said. “They also tend to wait too long to deliver it, so by the time the feedback is delivered it is more about evaluating than coaching.”

Organizations “should do their utmost to retain employees and help them develop if they are struggling in a role,” said Michael Timmes, senior human resource specialist at Insperity. “Only after exhausting all available measures should an exit strategy be explored. Society has developed so that we seek instant gratification in business just as much as in our personal lives. Employers want to find the perfect candidate, with the ideal skill set and matching personality. But in a crowded job market, those individuals can be almost impossible to find.”

“A perceived incompatibility can often derive from a lack of necessary soft skills,” Timmes said. “However, these can be taught through coaching or counseling. This can improve the employee’s productivity and performance, to a point where they are meeting or surpassing expectations in their role.”

But to some managers it becomes a no-win situation for them and their employee.

“Occasional bumps in the road may occur due to changing performance expectations, personal life disruptions, and increasing workplace demands and pressure,” said Liz Bywater, president of Bywater Consulting. “But continual bumps can create unrelenting stress and significant distraction for a CEO.”

If an employee “repeatedly or continually fails to meet expectations for performance, workplace behavior and overall leadership—despite clarity around what’s expected, real-time feedback, and the tools for success—it is likely time to end the relationship,” Bywater said. “A CEO, or any senior leader, cannot afford to spend time, effort and energy addressing performance gaps, behavioral missteps or poor leadership.” 

Cheri Torres, partner with NextMove.is, agrees.

“There are times when it just isn’t going to work, and I recommend letting the person know that there seems to be a misfit between the needs of the job and their strengths, then sharing what you have observed their strengths to be,” Torres said.

Torres also said to offer suggestions of the kinds of employment or jobs where their strengths and skills would allow the person to excel and offer to provide a letter of recommendation about their strengths.