Why (and How) to Let Problem Employees Go

Managing problem people isn’t worth the cost

If you have a heart, you want to give a struggling or flawed employee the right chances to turn things around. Yet when the wish or hope for change keeps them around for too long, it does more harm than good:

  • You spend too much of your valuable time/energy on them and the problems they cause.
  • Your best people suffer as they see you avoiding the inevitable, and they may leave your organization.
  • Your struggling employee is under stress from negative feedback and diminishing colleague support.
  • In smaller organizations, the disruption cost of holding on to a chronic low performer or problem employee is particularly brutal — it’s not like the issue has anywhere to hide. And even in large organizations, they can create pockets of significant disruption that may cause real nightmares.

Even so, the most seasoned leaders hold on for many seemingly good reasons.

Below, I’ve presented the most common justifications (gleaned from three decades of my own experiences as an exec and executive coach), and suggest several steps you may want to consider.

As you read through them, consider that many of these may be present at the same time — and the more that are “true” for you, the harder it will be to take the necessary action. Check them out and see if any of them are familiar to you, or true of a manager/leader you may know:

Top 7 reasons we hang on to problem employees

1. Being overly optimistic about their ability to change. If you’re a good leader, chances are you have a fairly optimistic mindset; you see possibilities where others see only problems. Apply that positivity to chronic underperformers, however, and it works against you. You may be saying to yourself, “maybe if I give it more time,” or “maybe I’m not helping them enough” — but this thinking can easily carry on for too long.

2. Avoiding a conflict or painful situation. Even for some tenured, successful CEOs I know, the prospect of firing someone who is not a good fit can be daunting. Sometimes, dismissing an employee can almost be like breaking up with a spouse or partner. People simply don’t want to do it, particularly if the person is well-liked.

3. Finding and recruiting a replacement is hard. Maybe you’ll have to make a case internally for a replacement req, or go through an internal/external recruiting process. Or maybe you have doubts about your ability to select and hire the “right” person. Regardless, finding a replacement is often difficult and time-consuming.

4. Not wanting to take on their work. Face it, we’re all super-busy, and the prospect of taking on someone’s work yourself, or assigning it to one of your team, is off-putting. Some elect to hang on to a problem employee rather than deal with the additional work for the time it may take to justify and/or find a replacement.

5. Reluctance to admit a failure. Maybe you recruited the person and feel it would reflect on you badly that they didn’t work out. Or maybe they’ve worked for you for a long time, and your relationship is otherwise strong. Either way, firing the underperforming employee may feel like your own failure, and that can be a hard pill to swallow.

6. Belief that the problem employee is irreplaceable or holding something together. They may have deep specialized knowledge that others lack, or manage a business, region, or set of functions that others don’t know. Or they may just be particularly beloved by their team. In these circumstances, it can be seductive to imagine that they are the “glue” holding things together, and that without them (even despite their prolonged underperformance) things will come apart.

7. Loyalty or humanity. Maybe you like them, they like you, or both. Perhaps you worry about their family, their future livelihood, or the emotional impact of a job loss. It’s both understandable and admirable that you would care about someone on your team. However, if they are wrong for the role, or not delivering results for a prolonged time period, chances are good that a) it’s going to have to happen eventually, and b) their issues are a problem for their colleagues, too.

What to do about it

Step 1: Give your underperforming employee a reasonable chance to change.

Support their development for a set period of time. Best case scenario is that the problem employee can learn, grow and/or change. Usually, though, we change when WE are ready to change, and not when others think we should. It’s good to support any potential positive change for them by offering the resources in your power to help them improve. It’s also important to set a time frame around this, and stick with it.

Step 2: Know where to draw the line, and when to start the termination process.

Seek advice and counsel to hold you accountable to the time frame you’ve given yourself. Ask them for help in determining when the time is up. I’m not recommending you fire someone with a long and successful career who’s had a few bad months or quarters. Yet once a reasonable time has passed, if the problem persists, it’s time to take action.

Step 3: How to fire someone nicely? Help them find a better situation.

I will never forget when Carol, my boss 25 years ago, changed my life for the better by laying me off. She proactively made calls for me, made recommendations, and helped me take a great step in my career — ultimately, one much better suited to my strengths. Take a lesson from Carol: If you value them, don’t dump them without support. Put your own time in to help them land in a good situation, as you would someone you care about.

Firing a problem employee — the bottom line

Recognizing your pattern of holding on too long, and helping all involved by making a positive — if difficult — change is not only good for you and your organization, it’s the right thing to do. And, as Carol showed me, it’s often the right thing to do for them.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: