Craig*, a VP of inventory for a food packaging company, had always been a high performer. He had been with the company three years, had a reputation for taking an innovative approach, and had good relationships with his team. Craig’s boss, Louise*, had come to count on Craig for his expertise and experience. During a factory move, however, Craig began to disappoint. He took many personal days during the move, and Louise found herself stretched thin covering for him. To add fuel to the fire, when Craig was asked to onboard several new employees, he pointed to a lack of HR leadership as an excuse for delaying the process indefinitely.
So was Craig’s performance an anomaly or a canary in the coal mine? After giving Craig direct feedback, Louise watched in dismay as he failed to take the initiative she had hoped for. Now she was really in a bind—how much credit did she give him for past performance? Should she settle for “good enough” going forward, or was it time to let Craig go?
The decision to terminate an employee is never easy. Firing someone you’ve worked with for years, especially someone you know and respect, is often excruciating. Even the most experienced managers lose sleep over it. It’s almost impossible to take the emotion out of what is a very personal decision—even when it’s a decision that makes rational economic sense on paper.
So amid all of these conflicted feelings, how do you know if your employee is sill an A-player worthy of another chance? How do you know when enough is enough?
Let’s assume you’ve done everything right up until this point—you’ve delivered honest and constructive feedback about your employee’s performance. You’ve set realistic goals and objectives for him or her to meet, with a concrete timeline to follow. And of course, you’ve asked your employee for his or her input around how to improve performance as well. From a management perspective, at least, you’ve done everything in your power to set expectations, give guidance, and empower your underperforming employee to step up to the plate.
If that still doesn’t work, what then? Ask yourself the following three questions to help shed light on the right course of action:
1. Is your employee meeting the responsibilities listed on his job description?This is the baseline, and yet many of us don’t refer back to a job description after we’ve completed the hiring process. Neither do our employees. But by revisiting a job description well into an employee’s tenure, a manager can assess how aligned the employee is with the job description. He or she can then have a meaningful discussion about each part of the role, re-calibrate the employees’ priorities, and revise the job description, as needed. If the employee’s performance isn’t matching with the current or revised job description, it is time to terminate.
In Craig’s case, was he good enough to keep things moving along at the factory? Yes. Was he performing all of his responsibilities with excellence? No. Was he maintaining his role as an exemplary leader of the organization? No. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, an employee who isn’t doing his job brings everyone down. It’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to them and it certainly doesn’t do your clients or customers any good either.
2. Can the market offer you a better employee at the same price? Louise was especially trigger-shy because she hadn’t done any succession planning for Craig’s role. How hard would it be to replace him? How much time, energy and resources would she need to invest to find someone with the skill, talent, and dedication she needed?
We all know that replacing talent is an expensive proposition. Data shows it can cost anywhere from 20% of one salary to upwards of 200% of one’s salary to replace an executive. So there’s no question that the hiring process is daunting, but with few exceptions, everyone is replaceable (as much as we’d like to think otherwise).
Craig was a valued employee with a solid history of performance, yet his eventual replacement brought a fresh pair of eyes, diverse thinking, and a powerful professional skillset. In the end, markets are efficient and talented employees looking to progress forward in their careers are abundant. Managers need to keep this reality in mind, even though it can be hard to see in the moment.
3. If the employee resigned today, would you fight to keep him? This is the final litmus test. By reframing the question this way, you will candidly address your internal debate: How would you feel if he left you? Devastated? Then maybe the relationship is salvageable. Relieved? Then it’s time to show your employee the door.
Louise ultimately realized she was hanging onto Craig because he was the devil she knew. That’s not a good enough reason to retain a good-enough employee. Like Louise, you will find another employee who will exceed your expectations and make you question why you waited so long to act in the first place. And Craig? He has been free to move onto another job with a better fit. While it may be incredibly difficult in the moment, it’s often better off for everyone in the long run.
*Craig and Louise are based on real people, though their names have been changed
Jodi Glickman is a keynote speaker and founder of communication training and leadership development firm Great on the Job. She is the author of Great on the Job and a contributor to theHBR Guide to Getting the Right Job. Follow her on Twitter at @greatonthejob.
Alicia Bassuk is a leadership designer and coach, motivational speaker, and founder of leadership development firm Ubica. She has coached C-level executives, presidential appointees, entrepreneurs, and other leaders internationally. Follow her on Twitter at @aliciabassuk.
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