is a subpar employee better than no employee?

A reader writes:

I work in an office where you’d have to set your desk on fire to get terminated around here. We have an employees who dinks around all day, dodging responsibilities, refusing to improve. Meanwhile, the rest of us run around like chickens trying to serve the clients.

My boss admits that this person is a subpar worker, and his boss is actually gunning for one of these lazy people. But my boss refuses to consider firing this person; he insists that if we do so, our corporate headquarters out West will never replace the position. (they think we’re overstaffed, and maybe this situation bears that out.) Then instead of getting subpar, reluctant work, we’ll get none at all.

I admit that’s a possibility, but gosh the whole thing seems wussy to me. Yeah, maybe we’ll lose the position, but is letting these person fester in that spot forever, making everyone all crabby, really better? Let’s take a chance! And I say this as someone who would probably have to help take up the slack if this person goes.

Bleah, anyway, I don’t think I can do anything about it, except perhaps start taking long lunches, because it looks like this place has great job security. This is very typical behavior from my boss, even in the good times — they prefer that a subpar worker just drift away. But here’s my question (at long last): Do you think my boss is being prudent, given that corporate headquarters is very reluctant to fill empty positions (we had to wait months for a terribly crucial position to be filled after someone quit), or kinda cowardly?

If your boss would truly, truly fire this guy except for the fact that he won’t be able to get a replacement authorized (which I’m not sure I buy), then he’s not necessarily being cowardly — but he’s probably still making the wrong choice.

Poor performers are more than just an opportunity cost — they also lower the morale of everyone around them, send signals to other employees that they don’t need to perform well themselves, lower the overall bar of performance accountability in your culture, and suck up an inordinate amount of time in supervision. Whatever small amount it may help to have him there, it’s probably outweighed by the price you’re paying for keeping him.

I’ve actually been in situations where after firing someone, and while waiting to hire their replacement, I found I was able to get more done without that slot filled than when the previous employee was in it — in other words, having fewer staff was better than having more staff with a bad performer around.

What your boss is missing is that productivity isn’t just about the number of bodies on hand — it’s about the quality of staff you have, and poor performers aren’t just low contributors in that calculation; they’re often actually negative contributors.

He should address the performance problems head-on and enforce real consequences, including termination, if this guy won’t meet a higher bar — replacement or no replacement.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    A former employer had this situation during my 6 year stint with various employees. We had a couple of people who we joked were half or a quarter of a body. Terrible work ethic, bad performance, the list went on. They were always short staffed, but i my view, no body was the better alternative. So I agree wit AAM's view.

  2. Phideaux*

    About a year and a half ago I was promoted supervisor to a department of 5 (including myself) and one of the people was exactly as described by the OP. It was so bad that he a reputation within the company as a slacker, only doing the minimum required(and not very well) and pushing the limits of allowed sick leave. I immediately set my sights on cracking down on him with the goal of either him shaping up into the employee I needed, or him quitting or getting canned.

    Long story short, he was fired several months ago. Management decided not to replace him, and the department has never been better. It was a bit of an adjustment, but just not having to deal with this guy's crap and carry the extra burden of covering his shortcomings freed us up to actually do our jobs and has made for a more efficient, and happier, department. It is definitely a case of addition by subtraction.

  3. Anonymous*

    I actually decided to leave one job for this very reason. There were other issues at the job, but they were bearable until one of my coworkers only came to work six times in two months and my boss was so clueless that he did not even notice.

  4. Laura*

    My current job is like this, only our business is booming so there's no real excuse for retaining this employees. That's the most frustrating part!

    My job isn't bad, but my boss lets some of our department staff get away with such laziness. Our receptionist is on facebook the entire day and only gets about half her workload done a week, and certainly doesn't handle the urgent things. The IT guy barely shows up, does a half-assed job, and has cost the company an excessive amount of money through his personal purchases.

    My boss just doesn't want to manage and can't handle having to be mean to someone, even though she could hire any one of the thousands of local unemployed and get better employees.

  5. Anonymous*

    People like that aren't just non-contributors, they're time- and morale-sucks. It's a net gain to be rid of them even if you don't get somebody else in their place.

  6. Chris Young*

    Great post and excellent job of highlighting the unseen costs of low performers to a team's morale and performance! One thing I would add that should also be taken into consideration is the cost to the Customer or Client's experience that is caused by a low performer who is allowed to linger on in their position for too long.

    I have shared your post with my readers in my Rainmaker top five blog picks of the week (found here: so that they can be reminded of the high cost of low performing employees.

  7. Anonymous*

    Is that really the situation ? Several employees running around servicing clients ? Maybe none of the rank and file is worth a darn ? Maybe the rest are just dodging the workload just the same and the other person isn't the problem, maybe it starts with leadership and it sifts down thru a staff. Created crisis ? Some of the responses I've read indicate harassing the employee to resign or get fired. No replacement either, I suspect that was the real goal, find a scapegoat and a cost reduction for labor ? Because most certainly, the job remains undone !

  8. Phideaux*

    "Some of the responses I've read indicate harassing the employee to resign or get fired. No replacement either, I suspect that was the real goal, find a scapegoat and a cost reduction for labor ? Because most certainly, the job remains undone" Let me guess, you must have been one of the ones to get canned! Well, after you left, we quickly discovered that the time we were no longer spending pulling your load was time spent doing our own jobs better and more efficiently, ergo, eliminating the need for the 5th wheel. As a department manager, will I take advantage of improving my budget by trimming labor dollars? Will I create a less stressful atmosphere for my employees by unloading the deadwood? If I could re-do going about the appropriate steps to rid your sorry ass from my department, would I? To quote a certain former-governor of Alaska, "You Betcha!"

  9. HR Management*

    I work in an office where you�d have to set your desk on fire to get terminated around here. We have an employees who dinks around all day, dodging responsibilities, refusing to improve. Meanwhile, the rest of us run around like chickens trying to serve the clients.

  10. Anonymous*

    I'm in a situation where many employees are slacking off – it's a big company. And like many big companies, we have a hard time firing people. But it's funny how the focus in this blog post is about firing these people. I've seen lots of these situations improve when the manager got involved in the employees performance, providing feedback, setting milestones. Is it really easier to call someone a loser, and hope that person gets fired?

  11. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous, I'm not sure why you're concluding that the manager hasn't gone through the normal steps someone would go through before firing an employee. There wasn't anything here to indicate that; in fact, the OP wrote wrote that the employee "refuses to improve."

Comments are closed.