be honest about employee problems

Posts this week will include some reprints of older posts that I still love. This post was originally published on January 24, 2008.

Do you have an employee whose performance you’re unhappy with? Tell them.

Do you have an employee who you strongly suspect isn’t going to work on in the long-term? Tell them.

All too often, managers avoid being candid with employees about concerns over performance or fit. They want to avoid a difficult conversation, or they don’t believe the person can fix the problem, or they’re hoping they can ignore it a little longer.

This is horribly unfair to the employee, who deserves the chance to know about the issues, and it’s unfair to your company, which has hired you to, in part, address employee problems head-on.

Yes, a conversation about performance problems isn’t pleasant. It sucks for anyone on the receiving end, and it sucks for the manager who has to deliver it. But it is far, far worse to be an employee whose boss doesn’t care enough to speak candidly with her about areas in which she needs to improve in order to do well.

Even if you’re convinced such a conversation would be fruitless and the employee can’t change, she deserves to know. She deserves to know because maybe you’re underestimating her, or maybe it would be useful for her to understand the ways in which she’s a bad fit for this work, or maybe she just deserves a chance to see the writing on the wall so she can start looking for other positions.

The worst thing you can do when you’re unhappy with an employee is stay quiet. Tell the person, and tell them now.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. NewReader

    I don’t think any job is without tasks that are uncomfortable.
    Part of leading is being the bearer of bad news from time to time. I have seen too many bosses who are afraid of having difficult conversations. I can be empathetic, but if it goes on too long or there are too many problems, I start to run out of empathy. If a person cannot handle difficult conversations and cannot find any resources to help them (books, mentors, etc.) , then that person probably should not be in management. Just my opinion, though….
    Difficult conversations are part of the job.

  2. KarenT

    Love this post. Waaay to often do we hear about people blindsided by firings or negative performance reviews.

  3. LL

    I’d love some advice for the following situation:
    An internal employee was transferred to my department after a reorg. She’s my direct report but I did not have involvement in the transfer. It turns out that she’s lacking *several* of the prerequisite skills for the new position, but all of these skills are trainable with enough time and resources. What now? Assign someone to oversee her work while we invest in months of training? Fire her and find a replacement that is already qualified for the position? And in the context of this article, how do I communicate these issues with the employee? It’s a performance issue, but not really the employee’s fault.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Does it seem reasonable to you to put in the amount of time and resources it would take to train her to where she needs to be? If not, I think you need to be honest with her and see if you can give her a certain amount of notice to job search while still on your payroll.

      (Note: if you’re a nonprofit, you probably can’t ethically spend a significant amount of time/money training her; that’s donors money that needs to go to your mission. If you’re a for-profit private business, then it’s really your call.)

    2. Aja

      It sounds like it migth ave been more appropriate for this person to be laid off, if I understand the situation correctly:
      – Person was doing job X in the Widget dept
      – Person was transferred to job Y in the Sprocket dept because job X no longer exists
      – Person is actually not qualified (through no fault of their own, just doesn’t have the required skill set) for the new position, job Y.

      If that’s the situation, I don’t think you can fire her for performance reasons – she was put into a new position for which she didn’t have the qualifications. If this happened to me, and they tried to position it as me being fired rather than a layoff, I’d have a problem with that…

      Is there a value to training her on the skills she’s missing, in order to leverage her knowledge of the organization and benefit from not having the time/money costs of hiring someone new. If it really would take months of training before she could be productive in this role, hiring someone new is probably the right way to go.

      1. Jamie

        I would also add that if you are going to let this person go, through no fault of their own because of the restructure, that being as generous as possible with the severance package is a decent thing to do.

        Also, ask if they would prefer to resign. In many states they can’t collect unemployment until the severance is expired, so maybe they would prefer that.

    3. LL

      Thanks for the great feedback! Aja, you’ve nailed the situation with your widget-sprocket analogy.

      With a technical position like this, its difficult to know what would be more cost effective – training up this employee or finding someone new. I think the next step may be a frank conversation with the employee about her skill deficiencies and plans for moving forward. I’d like to hear thoughts, especially to see how committed she is to stay in the new position. I’d hate to invest in all the training if the employee hates the new role and is already looking for another widget job.

    4. Jamie

      “And in the context of this article, how do I communicate these issues with the employee? It’s a performance issue, but not really the employee’s fault.”

      I would be honest with her, while being kind. Whatever aggravation you have at management for slotting someone into a position under you without vetting the qualifications (or even speaking to you) should never be detectable in your tone when speaking with the employee. As you note, it’s not her fault.

      I would make sure there was a solution, or at least a workaround, before speaking to her. No matter how nicely you say it “Hey, I know it’s not your fault but youre completely incompetant in your new role. We’re trying to decide whether you’re worth keeping or if we’re going to let you go” isn’t easy to hear unless it’s followed up with concrete ways to move forward – which will vary depending on the direction you want to go:

      This doesn’t seem to be a good fit, as we need someone with XYZ in this role and as great as you’ve been at ABC we need to figure out where to go from here:

      A. Is this something you’d be interested in learning? If yes – then lay out a sketch of a training plan.

      B. If this is something you’re not willing to train, or she’s not willing to learn then work on the beginnings of the transition plan.

      C. Offer her options (if any) of other roles in the company to which she could be transferred that need her skill set.

      Regarding C – have you spoken to tptb to see if there is somewhere in the company where she can go?

      In any case, until a decision is made, are there aspects of the job she can focus on that are within her skill set? Because I would imagine it’s demoralizing to come into work each day knowing you aren’t being effective at your job, knowing that others know it, and just waiting for your fate to be decided behind closed doors.

      But don’t give her options if there aren’t any, either. Don’t ask if it’s something she is willing to learn if you aren’t 100% sure you can provide the opportunity. Ditto for other positions in the company – unless you know there is one and it’s approved to offer it to her it’s unkind to even bring it up.

      Honestly, kindly put, trumps false hope every time.

    5. anonymous

      I am actually in a similar situation, except that this individual has not met the mark for some time, and her duties since being transferred to my department have not changed. There are 2 others in her position and she’s clearly the weakest of the group. The plans for next year have recently been evaluated and I’ve been informed by the higher ups that the business will not support 3 people in this position any longer and one must be let go. This person is the clear choice, however she has been with the company longer than her peers, and her previous manager unfortunately never addressed her performance issues directly with her. She will be entitled to a very generous severance, which will hopefully help, but I would love some guidance on the best way to handle this conversation.

        1. anonymous

          Alison, thank you very much for the quick response. There is definitely a lot of good information in that post that will be useful to me. Here’s the next issue though: One of the other 2 people in this person’s position has applied for another position in a different department, and I believe they may be likely to get it. In that case, I will end up having to replace them. Is this going to put me or the company in a bad spot if this happens after we have just laid this other person off? How do you recommend I handle it if this woman who has just been laid off applies? ( I really wish her former manager had just dealt with the situation properly before transferring her over to me! *sigh*)

  4. Un-motivated

    A year ago I was looked over for a promotion even though most of the office was sure I would get it. It was given to someone else who had been there longer (fair enough) but was SERIOUSLY lacking in skills.

    I recently found out through word of mouth that her supervisor is really unhappy with her performance and wishes I had been promoted instead….

    Except it’s been a year – and her supervisor isn’t doing anything. :|

    *rant over*

  5. Nicola

    Yes, please tell that person! Why? Because people like me won’t know we need to change something unless we’re told and we want to do a good job. My best supervisor bluntly told me the things about my work performance and attitude that needed to be changed and I still feel blessed she said something. Sure, we might cry (egads!) but the constructive criticism is one of the best things a supervisor can do for their subordinates. I’m so grateful I was told.

  6. Vicki

    The “now” part is critical. Don’t wait until the annual review.

    And also, if it’s a one-time thing, you tell them now, and they fix it? Don’t bring it up again in the annual review 6 months later in a way that makes the issue look like an ongoing problem.

  7. Anonymous

    Not being honest with employees can come back and bite the employer big time. I worked for a company where the manager didn’t say anything to an under-performing employee who worked with other departments. Several department heads complained about her and her work. Finally the manager decided to re-organize her department to deal with this problem and the employee was assigned less interesting work – the manager hoped she would find another job and quit.

    Well, the employee didn’t quit, instead she filed a sexual harassment suite against the company. Seems she had had a brief affair with one of the dept. heads who complained about her. Since the manager had never told her about the complaints from several dept. heads, or given her any warning that her performance was sub-par, she assumed the demotion was due to her former lover.

    I left the company before this was settled, but I believe the company was looking toward settling with her because it didn’t have a defense. The manager was reassigned to another part of the company.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yep. It’s amazing how often an employer puts off addressing problems and then, right when they’re about to, something happens that would make doing it legally sticky — the person gets pregnant, takes FLMA, makes a harassment allegation, etc. You can still move forward with addressing performance, but it makes it a lot harder to ensure it doesn’t look connected to whatever that event was. One more reason to address things quickly and forthrightly.

  8. Anonymous

    I’m really tempted to print this out and leave it on my manager’s chair. In our department, there’s three of us who are at the same level. We’re each paired up with a senior member of the team and our role is to support our senior consultant.

    Long story short, one of them (I’ll call her S) is treated like the “golden child” because her senior consultant happens to be best friends with our manager. However, she makes a lot of careless mistakes that cost other departments a lot of valuable time investigating and following up with her to get clarification. Most of the time, however, other departments end up calling me or my colleague because S hardly answers her phone. When she does answer and someone brings an error to her attention, she feigns ignorance and doesn’t accept responsibility for the mistake that she clearly made (we share a database and can see each other’s work).

    This carelessness has been brought to my manager several times by different people from the departments that we regularly work with. Her solution? Have the three of us start verifying each other’s work to minimize the errors that have been coming from our department (so she basically lumped me and my colleague into the group). My colleague made another stand and took copies of emails and documentation that I’d kept as evidence of these mistakes to our manager just a couple of weeks ago, but nothing has been done. We both refuse to continue covering for S.

    I finally had enough and went to our Director with the issue. His suggestion was to keep documenting the errors and to bring them forward to our manager. I honestly don’t think it’ll help since we’ve already presented a ton of documentation and she wants to gloss over it.

    It’s doing serious damage to my morale. I work extremely hard and have received positive feedback from members of other departments that I work with closely. They’ve also confided in me that they feel they can always rely on me to help them through issues, whereas S tries to ignore them as long as possible. But when I see that S continues to coast and get special treatment, I often wonder what the point of doing a good job is. I’ve finally accepted that I just need to take it as it is and find a new job.

    Managers everywhere, please, PLEASE address performance issues head-on. It affects more people than you realize and the high performers on your team will start to lose their motivation and look to move onto a place that can deal effectively with performance issues.

  9. crazymom

    I have a staff person who has been told not to do something on work time but continues to do it on the sly. Also any time I correct an error there is an excuse – “before my time” or some other rationale. She does a decent job but not great and frankly I’m not interested in firing her since it would mean training someone else. I’ve cut her hours due to our business slowing and she said she would probably look for another job which is fine with me but unlikely since she’s way overpaid for what she does. She’s also lied and I’ve caught her on it but again theirs an excuse. Any suggestions beside canning her?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You need to fire her. That’s part of your job as a manager, and you’re doing your employer (and other employees) a huge disservice if you refuse simply because you don’t want to train someone else. What you’re doing is the type of thing that managers get fired for if it comes to light.

      1. crazymom

        I know that’s probably what I should do but this place is the definition of dysfunctional and I’ve been here so long I’m not worried about my job. We are an office of 5 so I’m the only one affected by her screw ups. And she wasn’t my first choice when hired but the “bosses” wanted the younger, more attractive candidate. Yup sexism in this day and age!

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