One of the most insidious mistakes I’ve seen leaders make it not firing people who aren’t performing or who are actively working against the best interests of the agency.
I get it. It’s painful to fire people. It takes away their livelihood. We worry about what they’ll do, how they’ll react. “His kid is about to start college, she just bought a new house.” We might even like the person. We might hate to admit that we made a mistake and hired the wrong person for the job. Maybe we think they have a good relationship with the client and that firing them could damage the business. But underperformers damage your team, their morale, their work product, and maybe even your client relationships.
Your job as the leader is to deal with that.
But there’s some homework to get out of the way before you can start. First, determine whether a personal issue impacts their work. Are they ill? Do they have a family crisis? Are they struggling with addiction or mental health issues? If so, find out and get them help. Then find out whether something at work is derailing them. Are they being harassed or bullied? Is their workload beyond what any normal person could manage? If so, deal with these things as well.
If neither of those problems exists, then you need to move forward with moving them on. Here’s the checklist for that:
1. Do they understand specifically how they need to change? Have they had a recent review? Were the problems addressed in that review? I’m amazed at how many leaders can recite a litany of problems about one of their employees—but they’ve never told that person what those problems are. Employees aren’t mind readers. They need to know specifically how to improve. You can’t assume that they should know, or that somehow they just get it.
2. Once they know what the problems are, help them improve—within reason. This can be coaching, more 1:1s, feedback, or training.
3. Give them a timeline. If you have the option of using performance plans, then put them on one. If not, then tell them exactly what they need to do and how long they have to turn things around. Make sure they understand that the consequence of not changing within that timeline is termination. If you put a senior person on a performance plan, then start looking for a replacement when you do. You may not need to hire a replacement, but at least you’ll know who’s out there and available, and you’ll be ahead of the game if your problem employee decides to leave on their own.
4. Make sure they get feedback as they work on these issues in regular 1:1s with a manager. These should include role play, review of what they could have done differently in meetings or other engagements. Review a sub-par deliverable and tell them how to do better.
5. Watch what you say. Too many leaders complain about underperformers or even gossip about them. Don’t participate in that and cut it off if you hear it. Let key team members know that the situation is being addressed and encourage them to help the person get better.
6. If the employee doesn’t change within the time allotted with this support, fire them. Let your clients know in an appropriate way, have a replacement lined up, and have a clear transition plan in place.
Clearly, if the person is actively harassing others, stealing, drunk, or using drugs on the job, then the timeline changes. And obviously you need to consult with HR and legal to make sure there are no legal ramifications.
But doing nothing is never the right answer.