Is It Time To Fire That Well-liked (but Under-performing) Employee?

Have you ever supervised someone who is a very good person but does not perform worth a darn? This is a fairly common, and tricky, situation faced by managers.

Keeping an employee who does not perform is not in the best interest of the employer or the other employees who have to pick up slack. Tolerating a well-liked slacker sends the message to other employees that popularity is more important than performance.

Even when they are likable, employees who don’t carry their own weight will soon lose the respect of their co-workers.

I have received many calls from managers who are stuck between knowing they need to fire an under-performing employee, and dreading doing so because of the fallout of firing a well-liked employee. In most cases, they are surprised when the firing is accepted and understood by other employees.

Frank, a bank manager, called me when he was faced with the decision of whether or not to fire a seemingly well-liked employee and respected member of the community. Tom, one of Frank’s loan officers, was seriously under-producing, leaving work early, and not participating in meetings.

Frank rarely received complaints about anything Tom did, or didn’t do, and he often saw Tom talking and laughing with co-workers and customers. Tom was very involved in volunteer work, city politics and the lives of his children—by all reports he was a very good person and someone many appeared to consider a friend.

On the other hand, Tom had not met his performance benchmarks for almost a year and his under-performance had become a financial drain on the bank. In comparison, other officers in the bank were exceeding their benchmarks in a strong local economy.

When Frank called, he told me he had initiated a number of performance conversations with Tom, had set and re-set performance expectations, and had asked Tom if there were any barriers or issues preventing him from meeting the expected goals.

Frank had sufficient cause for terminating Tom; he was a highly compensated employee who knew he needed to meet specific financial goals, and he had been told he wasn’t getting the job done. Frank had followed company policy on progressive discipline and had involved the human resource department. He also understood that if he did not terminate Tom, when he had fired less well-liked employees for similar performance issues, it could be seen as discrimination or as giving differential treatment.

I recommended that Frank have the bank’s employment law attorney review his documentation of performance issues and the decision to terminate prior to scheduling a termination meeting with Tom. Then we put together a plan for the termination meeting and for addressing questions from other employees following the termination.

A couple days after the termination meeting Frank called to tell me the meeting had gone surprisingly well and that Tom was a little surprised—not because he was being fired but because it hadn’t happened sooner! Tom told Frank he wasn’t invested in the job anymore, but because of his nature had found it very difficult to quit. Tom had other things he wanted to pursue and, in some ways, his job at the bank was holding him back.

Frank also told me he was surprised by the feedback he received from Tom’s co-workers—some expressed sadness at Tom’s departure though most saw it as inevitable and more than a little overdue. Several co-workers commented their work had become more difficult as they tried to make up for Tom’s slack and their respect of Tom had started to turn to resentment.

Frank’s story is a good reminder that decisions regarding terminating an employee must be, first and foremost, based on job performance. Good people sometimes fall down on the job, and our best efforts to help them get back up don’t always work.

If you are faced with a difficult termination (and aren’t they all?), don’t make it personal, don’t take responsibility for actions that are not yours to own, and don’t go it alone. Give me a call at The Village Business Institute and I, or another of our professional consultants, can help you through the process.

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