Stop making excuses for hanging on to bad employees

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

“Being a terrible employee doesn’t mean that you’re bad, lazy, or even unable to succeed professionally. You could be a bad culture fit for the company. Your disposition may not jibe with your boss’ style. Maybe you’re just in the wrong industry.”

Richard Feloni, Áine Cain and Shana Lebowitz, Business Insider

I don’t think a month goes by where the business owners or managers I regularly meet with do not bring up an issue relative to an underperforming or behaviorally misfit employee.

Last week I met with an HR manager who was dealing with an unfortunate situation. Another story of behavior and performance that were simply unacceptable. Often these stories leave me scratching my head. Where does the tolerance for such behavior or failure to perform originate? Often what I hear when I ask is some version of “Good people are really hard to find.”

Is there a scarcity of qualified workers in the US? I suppose “qualified for what” is a relevant question to ask. Sources suggest that there are about 3 million unfilled positions at present. Is that a lot? Not really. The total workforce number about 160 million, meaning that the vacancy rate is running at around 2 percent. The conundrum of course is that the vacancies cannot be filled from the pool of unemployed potentials. So, there is a skill gap. But that’s no excuse for hanging on to subpar performers or cultural misfits.

In an economy grounded in rapidly changing technology, it does seem understandable that there, almost necessarily, will be some sort of skill gap at all times. Certainly that 2% indicates a solid effort to continue to close that gap. But that skill shortage only exists in a select number of professions.

Many of the employers who continue to complain that “good people” are hard to find are not necessarily talking about the special skills positions. They continue to hold onto replaceable employees that are not meeting their needs and complain.

Take a look at this article called “Nine Signs You are a Problem Employee and May Not Even Know it“.

When I read this I wondered if problem employees will be reading it and saying to themselves, “Oh man, this is me, at least some of these things. Why hasn’t someone said something to me?” Honestly, do you think that a problem employee is going to pick up this article at all, much less identify themselves as a problem? I wouldn’t bet on it.

If you are dealing with employees who cannot meet the minimums of the position to which they are assigned, or the basics expected of any employee such as be on time, do complete work, don’t miss work, etc., and you have not addressed the behaviors outlined in this article you have no one to blame except yourself.

You cannot expect underperformers to suddenly see the light and turn themselves around. People perform to the expectations set for them. And if you want to stand any chance of having someone’s performance turn around, start with showing them this article and then letting them know that it is time for a talk, a talk in which you set some standards that you will not deviate from. Don’t threaten; promise action if the standards are not met.

Listen, in many cases of underperforming employees you are dealing with people who have never fully matured emotionally. That is not something your workplace is designed to address; you are running a business not a rehab.

Of course, this is not simply an issue for you. Your other employees, the ones you don’t want to lose, have to work with your problem people too, and they are expecting you to do something about it. If you don’t, you should not be surprised if the better employees recognize they can move on and not have to put up with the nonsense.

OK, so now you have listened to my lecture and if you have recognized that you are guilty of holding on to some people you should have let go a while ago you are probably appropriately chagrined. Stop it! This is no time to feel bad, it is time for action. So, take your embarrassment, learn to live with it and make a plan to take action in the next couple of days. Don’t be surprised if you get defensiveness from the problem employee; they have developed their poor habits in environments, yours included, that allowed their poor performance and misfit behavior. The time to change is now and you know the people to start with.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other.”

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