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Underperforming employees: the all-important question

sunk cost fallacy

Rachel Turner, writing in Fast Company, has an article on how to talk to an underperforming employee. It’s good advice, although it bypasses the single most important issue.

To change the problem with an underperforming employee, she reminds us, “the only thing you can change is what you think, do, or say.”

richard smoley produce blueprints

This calls for “honest, constructive feedback,” using “clean language”: “Charged language is highly emotive and will likely trigger a defensive reaction. Clean language removes as much judgment, accusation and emotion from the conversation as possible and allows for open and constructive dialogue.”

The next step is to prepare feedback, focusing on actions rather than personalities: “For example, What did the individual do? Be specific—e.g., ‘They rolled their eyes in the meeting this morning,’ not, ‘They are so disrespectful all the time.’”

The idea is to focus on the specific action and its effect on the situation and on other employees.

Then you prepare the employee in advance for what’s to come, for example by sending an email saying, “I noticed a few things that concern me. I’d like to share some feedback and have a conversation about how we could improve things moving forward.”

Turner’s advice is, perhaps, most useful when she discusses talking about the employee’s behavior. Focus on specifics and avoid generalities and accusatory language, including “you”: “You are always checking your phone and you never pay attention and it’s annoying everyone.”

Instead, make specific requests and “aim to keep conversations calm, constructive, and solutions-focused.” If the employee (or you) is growing irritated, “reflect that back to them” and go back to your initial comment. Or you may need to break off and resume later.

All of these suggestions are helpful. Yet the most important question is missing from the article: If you knew what you know now about this employee, would you hire him or her all over again? (Compare the sunk-cost fallacy.)

If the answer is No, that individual’s days are numbered. You may take the steps above to soothe your conscience or comply with the employee handbook, but sooner or later, that person is going to go. It’s not even a favor to keep them on. No doubt there are other positions for which they’re perfectly well suited, but if it’s not the job they actually have, no management techniques will overcome that defect.

Certainly, there are obstacles to this course of action: You may not have the authority to fire this person, and your superiors may be apathetic. Maybe you can’t just let the employee go, because as bad as they are, they are too important (in a small company, one person can constitute the entire department), or you would have trouble finding the right substitute in a tight labor market.

Finally—and this is one of the hardest dilemmas of all—the employee is worthless at their job but is just too darn likable to be shown the door.

In these situations—and there are many—Turner’s advice can be valuable. Even so, such employees are doomed in the long run. The problems they cause will eventually be too great to be ignored, or (this is not unusual) the employee will feel undervalued (for good reason) and leave on their own.

All of the above deals with more or less ordinary circumstances. To go into the nether zone, see Alan A. Cavaiola’s Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal with Dysfunctional People on the Job.

It’s not for the faint-hearted.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.