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

Effective Email Writing: 12 Pro Tips to Elevate Your Executive Presence

Effective email communication is hard — especially in a leadership role

How do you demonstrate executive presence over email? Surely, this is important — after all, the majority of us spend hours of our workday receiving hundreds, or even thousands, of messages, pounding out responses quickly and hitting SEND, thereby multiplying email for all involved.

Based on my experience coaching many executives, I’m sorry to report that really bad email habits are the rule rather than the exception. Just ask anyone whose email has ever been made public. But fear not. With some simple guidance, and by breaking a few bad habits, you can use email as an instrument of greater influence.

12 ways to upgrade your executive presence over email

In the heat of the moment, you may have hit “send” on one or two emails — and thought better of it later. Or perhaps, “in the interest of time,” you may not have given enough thought to how you were communicating.

When was the last time you re-read a sampling of your sent email, to assess its impact on your colleagues or team? This is an experiment that some of my clients have tried — and that works to bring new self-awareness to how you use email as a tool.

Carefully select a sample of, say, 20 of your sent emails. Make sure they represent both smooth and stressful times, as well as a spectrum of recipients. As you carefully reread your sample, start to reinforce the following tips in your mind:

1. Don’t blow off your subject line

Take the time to write a subject line that gets the correct attention and priority. Your email lands on long lists, and your most important recipients don’t have time to decipher your code or infer your meaning. Be creatively concise on the headline and, if appropriate, the time frame. “Project X Phase 2 Needs Your Approval by 5/15” works better than “Project X Follow Up.”

2. Don’t bury the lead

Your subject line has grabbed their attention. Now what? Why should your recipients care about this message? What do you want from them? If it takes more than a sentence or two to figure out why you’ve written the message and what’s most important, you’ve buried the lead — and your email executive presence along with it. Put your most important message(s) right up front, in the first sentence or two.

3. Be brief — very brief

If you need to write more than a few paragraphs, and certainly more than one email on the same topic, then there’s a problem: you’re likely trying to avoid, spackle over, or substitute for a conversation that needs to happen. Keep your emails short and sweet. If you can’t, then start an IM, pick up the phone, or go face to face. If you have a lot of information to deliver, do them the courtesy of putting it in an attachment (and follow these tips on the cover email).

4. Don’t confuse an email chain with a conversation

A string of emails and replies shouldn’t be considered a substitute for a conversation, a brainstorming session, or a decision-making process. It’s a series of “tells” with varying lag times that often lead to unnecessary churn. Voice to voice, face to face, and even IM are much better forums for important interactions.

5. Don’t use email to confront, vent, process, or punish in public

If you have a complaint, concern, or issue with Sally or her team, then the explanatory email that “tells it candidly” to Sally (or to Sally PLUS other colleagues–ouch!) is a bad, bad idea!  It’s the last thing you want to send. Lasting damage to executive presence springs from this mistake. As a therapist might say, “Write the letter and don’t send it.” Email isn’t the place for processing an issue, venting, or confronting. Since email lacks interactivity and the nuance and body language needed for deeper understanding, it will make thorny issues thornier, and rarely if ever solves anything.  Sending a “here’s what’s wrong” email to Sally, especially copying others, is a sure way to diminish or destroy trust.

6. Follow the “New York Times rule”

You’ve heard this one before — now believe it: Email is barely communication. It’s certainly not a forum for risky disclosure. (And unlike a conversation, an email doesn’t die.) Don’t put anything in an email today you wouldn’t be OK reading in the New York Times tomorrow. All emails could be (and perhaps are being) read by others. They are also subject to discovery in case of future legal action.

7. Check your grammar and spelling, and avoid text-speak in emails

Executive presence degrades with poor quality communication. Check your spelling. Read your email out loud. Look for words spelled correctly but in the wrong place, such as “here” versus “hear,” “affect” versus “effect,” or “your” versus “you’re.” Using text-speak like “FWIW,” “ur,” “btw” and “LOL,” even when sending from your smartphone, degrades your executive presence. Double-check for all of these before sending.

8. Reread the message you received carefully, before sending your reply

Too many people scan and reply in a rush, and miss the point. Before replying to a message, read it twice. Think. Prioritize. Then, BEFORE SENDING, read the original email and your reply together. If you don’t have time for that, wait until you do, or connect with the recipient by another method.

9. Don’t be lazy about forwarding emails

We’ve all done it: forwarded emails without double-checking what lurks below, earlier in the chain. Before sending, please scroll all the way down and read the full chain. Delete irrelevant, outdated, or recipient-inappropriate stuff. You’ll not only better serve your recipient with a crisp, relevant communication, you might also spare yourself a world of trouble.

10. Check and double-check recipients

Avoid over-sharing! That means overusing cc: and bcc: to send the wrong thing to the wrong person, or to more people than needed. Before clicking SEND, check and double-check your recipients. This may seem obvious, but it’s a step too often overlooked. And like the unchecked forward, it can lead to all kinds of unnecessary headaches.

11. Be thoughtful about timing and response time

Don’t send emails in the middle of the night or on weekends–as a leader, that telegraphs an expectation of response in kind.  Put them in your drafts folder and send them later.  Also, no one likes an e-stalker. When you send follow-up emails too soon after the original (e.g., “did you have a chance to review my email from earlier today?”), you’re degrading your executive presence. If you’re going to need a response that quickly, you probably shouldn’t use email in the first place.

12. Effective business communication is interactive

When in doubt (e.g., “Should I do this on email?,” “Why am I having so much trouble writing this?”) delete your draft, and pick up the phone, open a video session, IM, or if in walking distance, add a few steps to your daily count and have a conversation.

Stellar executive communication starts with self-awareness

As suggested above, self-test a sample of your previously sent email from time to time. What do you need to change? Answer that, and you can transform email from a weakness into a vehicle to enhance your communication, strengthen your influence, and build your executive presence.


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

Leadership and Trust: 7 Things Bosses Are Doing Wrong

Effective leadership is based on trust

The importance of trust in leadership cannot be overstated. And yet far too many leaders and managers do things every day, inadvertently, that send the message that they distrust even their best people. This is a leadership weakness that can easily fly under the radar (though it won’t go unnoticed among your employees).

Sapping people’s trust is demotivating — and demotivated people simply don’t do their best work. I’m not suggesting your every decision should be guided by how to motivate staff, but at the same time, it’s critical NOT to demotivate them.

Eliminating inadvertent behaviors that say “I don’t trust you” is a no-cost, high-value way to retain great people — and to increase the odds they will consistently do their best work.

That said, what may not be evident is what you’re doing that’s telegraphing mistrust or doubt.

7 leadership steps to building trust in the workplace

Below are seven areas for you to consider — as well as bite-sized coaching ideas on each one — taken from the pages of my experience as an executive coach, working with many different leaders and organizations.

Assuming one or a number of these may be an issue in your world, ask around, and see if there’s truth to any of them. If so, it probably wouldn’t hurt to try making some changes.

#1: Hovering (being a “helicopter boss”)

Behaviors: Nitpicking; micro-editing; being hyper-vigilant about the details of their work; too-frequent check-ins; and telling, rather than asking or discussing, “better” ways to do what they are doing.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust you to do your job on your own.

Executive coaching bites: If there’s an enduring performance problem, greater vigilance may be necessary. If not — and if you think you may be hovering — ask yourself the appropriate question, depending on your pattern:

  • “If I don’t micro-edit this, can it be good enough?”
  • “What would enable me to experiment with getting out of the details of X’s work?”
  • “Can I add greater value by asking good questions, and provoking my people to come up with their own answers/solutions?”

#2: Delegating the “what” and the “how”

Behaviors: Saying, in effect, “This is what I need, and here’s how I need you to do it,” or “You should / should’ve done it this way.”

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust you to do our job your own way, or to do your job the best way possible.

Executive coaching bites: Telling them how to do their work marginalizes, rather than maximizes, your people. This is a classic sign of micromanagement, and it goes directly to your bottom line. If there’s well-grounded concern about whether they will come up with a good solution, then you need to either provide greater support, or reconsider the person for their role.

If not, then having them figure out on their own the “how” of what you’ve asked them to do enables them to add value — and that’s, after all, what you pay them to do.

#3: Delegating without sufficient context

Behaviors: Making a request or command to do something without explaining why, or how it fits in to the bigger picture.

Unintended messages you send: You don’t need to be in the loop of the “why” of this. I don’t care enough about your success to actually increase the odds you will succeed here.

Executive coaching bites: People do a much better job when they understand the context of your request — it’s needed to tailor their thinking and output in a positive way, and is an easy way to improve employee engagement. Before making a request, try thinking about including them in the bigger picture, or at least explaining why they are NOT being given that context.

Other things that add context include how their work will be used, why it is the priority it is, etc. Higher-context delegation — even if it takes an extra minute or two of thought on your part — will yield greater engagement and better output among your people.

#4: Taking authority for decision-making too far up the chain

Behaviors: Many organizations say they want to empower their people — yet, particularly in difficult times, the reverse is what happens. Pulling too many decisions into committees, or up the leadership chain, making decisions on smaller issues or expenditures and not delegating them — all of these behaviors degrade effective leadership.

Unintended message it sends: I don’t trust you to make prudent or wise decisions.

Executive coaching bite: This may be a blind-spot issue. Consider asking your people: Which decisions do you feel you can make — yet are being made beyond or above you?

#5: Leading with the mindset that your employees are not allowed to fail

Behaviors: However well-intentioned, if people are working at their best, sometimes they will fall down or fail. Intervening, over-rehearsing, or otherwise being overly protective of them is not doing them a favor — it’s a weakness that should be weeded out.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust that you can handle yourself well.

Executive coaching bites: While it’s a good practice to help your people avoid falling a mile, falling an inch or even a foot can be an important — even an essential — learning experience. Stumbling every now and again can make your employees more self-sufficient; you deprive them of this empowerment if you are being too heavy-handed in their “defense.”

#6: Overriding an employee’s input or feedback

Behaviors: Taking in input, then (apparently to them) ignoring it without explanation. Asking for feedback, then overriding it.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust the quality or insights of your input.

Executive coaching bites: This is a very common management mistake. If you seek feedback or input, then choose to bypass or reject it, it’s important to share what was behind your decision. “You had good ideas, but we ran out of time / budget, and had to do the minimum,” or “I appreciated what you said, and hope we can take it to heart next time, but this time, X got in the way,” can help.

Otherwise, you risk shutting them down, which can hurt you in the end — particularly when the stakes are higher.

#7: Keeping your people under wraps

Behaviors: Bringing your people along with you to an important presentation or event, and not letting them actively participate. Not giving your people opportunities to showcase their work.

Unintended message you send: I don’t trust you to do your best when the setting or stakes are higher.

Executive coaching bites: Again, if you are worried about showcasing your people in higher-stakes settings, then it’s important to address what’s worrying you. If not, then you may be in the habit of keeping your people under wraps, and that’s a habit that’s easily changed. Ask yourself: “What would need to happen for me to provide a platform for X to shine?”

This is a sure-fire employee retention strategy, and will reflect well on you when you become known for fostering new talent.

The takeaway

How to retain your best employees? Through your words and your actions, show them you trust them. And make them feel it. The dividends can be off the charts.


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

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