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What About Employees That Aren't Good Enough To Keep, But Aren't Bad Enough To Fire?

Several years ago, as CEO of a rapidly growing company, I faced the dilemma we've all faced (or will face) -- the employee that's straddling the fence. They're really not good enough to keep, but on the other hand, they haven't done anything so bad that you would fire them. I don't think there's anything worse in an organization. They sap your energy and enthusiasm, they drag down productivity, and they just generally hurt morale.

This type of employee is characterized by a totally non-committal attitude. They have one foot in and one foot out. When there's something to be gained, they step in with both feet. When the going gets tough, they step out. They're never really all the way in or all the way out.

My struggle with this type of employee was a senior manager in a company I was running. When things were good she jumped right on board, speaking in terms of we. "We were awesome!" Or, "We accomplished what everyone said was impossible.". When times were hard and things got dicey, she always spoke in terms of y'all. "Well, y'all should have seen this coming," or "If y'all had done your jobs, none of this would have happened."

I'm a believer in owning what happens. If you did something good, take appropriate credit for it. If you did something bad, own up to it, make adjustments to ensure it never happens again, and move forward. The one thing I find most difficult to deal with is someone who won't own what they did or didn't do. I suppose that's because if you own it, you can fix it. If it's always someone else's fault, you can never get it fixed because you don't have any control over anyone but you. So when someone says, "It wasn't my fault," I know that's the beginning of not fixing the problem.

Often, that's the mentality of the employee we don't fire but shouldn't keep. They're the victim -- always. Nothing is ever their fault. The light was dim. Their foot slipped. If they'd have had a decent scout master -- like yours -- of course they'd have gotten their eagle. The truth is, you really can't help them until they are willing to help themselves. And if they won't take responsibility for their actions, they can't move forward.

So what do you do? I suppose it depends on your point of reference. If you're a leader who places high value on developing talent from within, you're going to err on the side of "not done anything bad enough to fire." If you're a bottom-line-only kind of leader, you're going to err on the side of "not good enough to keep."

So which approach is right? Both are right and both are wrong. If you're too bottom line oriented you might be too quick to fire. If you're too develop-from-within oriented you might be too slow to terminate. The best advice is set a date. In all fairness, you need to give people an honest chance to adapt. But again, in all fairness, you can't go on forever. By setting a reasonable date, you give the person ample opportunity to come around, You also ensure that you're not dragging things out for someone who's never going to change.

Once you have a date you need to sit down with the employee and have a discussion. In this discussion you need to be sure you explain everything in unmistakable detail. At the end of the period outlined, you're going to terminate their employment. I'd say that deserves a serious discussion of what changes are expected, when they're expected and everything that is expected if you're going to continue together. Don't assume they already know anything. Be clear, be detailed, and be direct. You don't want to soft sell this. You need to be absolutely certain they understand.

If push comes to shove and you have to let someone go, don't beat yourself up over it. The employee made the choice not to engage. If you did your part in explaining it clearly and you left them sufficient time to adapt -- and they didn't take advantage of the opportunity you provided -- this is not your problem. Again, you can't be responsible for their unwillingness to save their own life.

Life is too short -- and there are too many other employees who will be negatively affected by a marginal manager -- to let this go on too long. Yes, you might have been able to turn them around. In the case of the manager I outlined above, she finally came to the party -- about 5 years after I left the company. She's a great manager now. Was it worth the wait? Only they can decide. I suspect it would have been better for the company to cut their losses.

If you've had a problem with this type of employee and come up with a creative way to handle it, leave it in the comments. I'd love to hear how you're doing it.

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