is a bad employee better than no employee at all?

A reader writes:

I work in an office where you’d have to set your desk on fire to get terminated. We have an employees who dinks around all day, dodging responsibilities and 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. But he refuses to consider firing this person; he insists that if we do so, our corporate headquarters 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 the whole thing seems silly to me. Yeah, maybe we’ll lose the position, but is letting these person fester in that spot forever, making everyone 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.

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 he is being cowardly?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. CrazyCatLady*

    I’ve worked with people like this before and I definitely think it’s better to get rid of them, even if you end up having to pick up the slack. Besides it being demoralizing, you’re probably ALREADY picking up the slack, and becoming resentful over it. At least if there’s no one in the position, you know it’s just something that needs to be done by the available staff. It’s much worse when there’s someone who is supposed to be doing it, and you have to do it for them.

    1. KH*

      Too bad you can’t just get rid of him and divide up his salary among yourselves. That would be the fairest solution of all!

  2. Kyrielle*

    Everything you said, and also this – if it’s hard to refill positions in part because management thinks you’re overstaffed, then getting rid of this guy is a win for the next time a *good* performer leaves, because either you’ll have replaced this guy with a good performer (yay, one more person helping out!), or you’ll be down two positions (which, unless they think you’re wildly overstaffed, will resonate with management as something to address sooner).

    And, yes, I’ve absolutely seen a case where a bad performer’s removal improved the productivity of the team. Not just because it removed a demotivator on the other people (though it did), but also because all the time spent managing, assisting, redoing their work, etc., was removed. (I don’t know about the OP’s job, but in software engineering, redoing poor work can absolutely take longer than doing it right yourself in the first place.)

    1. Sydney Bristow*

      Redoing the work of poor performers can take so much time! In my experience, it often takes longer to fix their work than it would have taken someone to do it right in the first place.

      1. Rebecca*

        This, 100 times. A few months ago, I took a vacation day, and my manager gave her friend and lowest performer 2 things to do that I could have done when I returned the next day. Nope. Instead, I spent hours fixing the mess this person caused. And everyone from upper management knows this person is a waste of space, but manager protects her and “keeps her off the radar” by covering for her at every turn. It causes so many problems in our office.

        1. Adam V*

          If they know she’s that much of a problem, why isn’t upper management telling your manager “either she’s fired or you both are” ?

          1. Rebecca*

            Because they are as gutless as she is. There are several people that need to go, but she won’t even lay them off. They have house payments, car payments, kids in college, etc. and she views herself as a parent figure, and thinks it’s cruel to let them go. One person shouldn’t have been hired at all, but she thought it would be neat to give this person a chance, her words, not mine. Now we’re stuck until she retires, but if I can help it, I won’t be here when that happens.

            1. WorkingMom*

              This mentality drives me nuts. Yes, as managers we need to be compassionate. But not at the cost of productivity, the business, and the rest of the team. There is difference, I think, between a low performer and someone who is negatively impacting team morale, refuses to even try to improve, bad attitude, etc. With a low performer who tries, but no matter what they do they are just not as strong as everyone else – I don’t know that you need to fire this person immediately. Of course if a major mistake occurs or costly mistakes are happening, that’s different. But let’s say they just can’t handle the volume everyone else can, but with a smaller workload they can do things right & on time – in that case I think it is better to retain the person than be understaffed. You just have to monitor workload. Now, with an employee who is essentially dead-weight? Get rid of them, immediately. It’s not worth it.

      2. Windchime*

        Yep, we recently went through this. For awhile, it was tough to get positions replaced so we kept a couple of low-performing employees on for fear of not being able to replace them. One finally quit and other was let go, and life became *easier* for the team after that. We were no longer having to spend time doing production hot-fixes and scurrying around re-doing literally (not figuratively) every single thing this one guy did.

        The hiring freeze is over and we have recently made a couple of awesome hires, and it is just so nice to not have to work around the slacker (or the “missing stair” as Captain Awkward calls it).

  3. Charityb*

    If he’s not doing anything anyway I don’t see why it even matters if HQ replaces him. That role isn’t being executed by the employee filling it; someone else must be doing the work so just let that person keep doing it or share it around everyone else when the nonperformer is gone. No, it’s not fair but at least it’s cheaper.

  4. Me too!*

    OMG, did I write this letter in my sleep? We have the exact same problem, and what I can’t get through my bosses head is that the morale of people is definitely suffering due to the ONE person who doesn’t do their job. I have already gotten over the resentment of having to do more work (that person’s work). I am hoping this situation will be fixed by the end of the year, but I have heard that story before…

    1. Marketing Girl*

      Then we wrote this together because I am SO THERE WITH YOU! Everyone suffers due to one or two people. I’m in the midst of re-talking to my boss (CEO) again about it. I predict the same as well….

    2. catsAreCool*

      I used to have to work with a co-worker like this. I used to be the one asked to clean up the messes. Not fun. So glad he’s no longer with the company.

    3. Me too!*

      Cats, lucky you! Marketing Girl, my boss knows the situation and the problem and is equally upset, we are the ones covering the slack, but for the time being, he feels someone is better than no one. Again, I have been told things will be different in the new year. Well, we shall see if I am still here in the new year! Lots of luck to you in your situation!

  5. TheBeetsMotel*

    Bad performers suck the life out of the good performers and are an absolute liability. If the rockstars in your company quit because they can’t stand doing this guy’s work for him any more, your boss will have have double the headache to deal with – and no one to blame but himself.

  6. YOLO*

    Which situation would you rather face?

    Situation #1: you fire the poor performer, they don’t allow for a rehire, and the rest of your team absorbs the work (which it sounds like they’re already doing, to a great extent).

    Situation #2: your other workers find new jobs, tired of the poor performer getting paid for work that *they* are picking up, and you’re left with just the slacker to help you get all the work done…and you are only allowed to rehire 1 or 2 of the empty positions.

    1. fposte*

      Oh, good way of putting it. And if you threw it out to the co-workers for a vote–cover for Bob’s absence or cover for Bob’s presence–I bet they’d choose the first.

    2. Kyrielle*

      Yep. Heck, imagine only one of your good workers finds a new job over this – and they don’t allow for a rehire. Whoops! (Never mind if all of them do, which gets ugly fast, as you noted.)

      If, when the next person leaves, you won’t be allowed to rehire their position, then the underperformer is *absolutely* the next person you want to have leave. And beautifully enough, having them leave reduces the odds of the good performers wanting to leave.

      1. LBK*

        Excellent point – odds are that if you have a bad performer on your team, you’ll inevitably lose someone. Take control of the situation by ensuring that’s the bad performer and not someone you want to retain.

    3. Rebecca in Dallas*

      This is the situation I’m in right now. I’m looking for another job because I’m tired of doing someone else’s work and having her skate by. Good luck having her pick up any slack!

  7. Shannon*

    Get rid of the employee, then start keeping work logs for the department to demonstrate the volume of work you are doing and why you need that extra position. Yes, it means that for a while, you will be swamped. This may be a case where corporate has to feel the pinch of having a problem in order to resolve the problem.

    It will also be interesting to see if corporate is right. You don’t have an extra worker. You have someone who is in Adult Day Care. It is very possible that your productivity will go up if you don’t have to babysit (interact with them, go through the social dance of allowing them to do their work, then ultimately taking it over or correcting their work). Saying that this person is a worker implies that they are adding value to the team. They’re not.

    1. Bee Eye LL*

      I’d start keeping work logs FIRST – then get rid of the employee after you have quantifiable proof that they are screwing around, then go to management and show why the person was let go and what their numbers should be and why replacement is needed.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. And if corporate won’t budget for a replacement, fight for raises for the rest of the team while allowing whatever paid overtime needs to happen in order to hit your numbers.

      2. KH*

        Instituting a productivity tracking system might be just the nudge that forces the underperforming employee to pull their own weight — or move on. It’s hard to be a slacker when there are weekly meetings where you are expected to report on your accomplishments and you have nothing to talk about!

  8. Sascha*

    My team was just in this position, and believe me, we all preferred no employee over the bad employee. One major reason is all the time we spent fixing his work. So not only were we picking up slack on the work he didn’t do, we had to go back and fix the work that he did do incorrectly. So it was double work. I would have much rather just had no one there, because at least if I’m absorbing that work myself, I know I’m doing it right.

  9. Anon Accountant*

    Once you get rid of a problematic employee don’t be surprised if you see a spike in productivity. A problematic employee can really drag others down and suck the morale out of people. It really does a disservice to everyone involved including the problematic employee because those behaviors get reinforced the longer they are tolerated.

    I’m convinced it does them a favor because in their next role they’ll have seen the potential consequences of their poor behavior and can perform better in f

  10. some1*

    I also think it’s too easy for the problem employee to dismiss their issues when managers go this route. “If I was really that bad, there’s no way they would have let me stay until a replacement was found.”

  11. Brett*

    This also highlights a horrible management practice that I see all the time in the public sector: employees leaving=urgent replacement/employees fired=bloated department that needs further cuts. It seems to happen over and over that an office that fires one employee is then hit with budget cuts and layoffs the following year.
    And that leads to this issue, where offices try to get bad employees to retire or transfer rather than risk firing them and losing positions permanently.
    People who crunch the numbers, stop doing this!

    1. OriginalYup*

      Right? It’s the personnel version of bringing in your project under budget, and then having all your future project budgets cut because “you didn’t need it all last time.” I am a number cruncher and this non-logic makes me insane with rage.

  12. Former Retail Manager*

    From a practical standpoint, cut them loose. But when is management ever entirely practical? I work in an environment similar to what OP’s manager has described, but on steroids. There are positions for which we have now been told if someone leaves you WILL NOT get a replacement EVER because the position is being actively eliminated although they’re allowing it to occur naturally rather than layoffs, RIF’s etc. There are also likely budgetary issues much higher up the chain that OP is not aware of and her manager may have been instructed to proceed accordingly. For example, while you all may be able to make things work now, at your current workload level if you cut Slacker loose, could you do that if your workload were to increase by 20%, 50% or more? That is a concern, and it may be a much harder fight in the future to get that nonexistent position reinstated than it is to fight to keep a subpar employee now. Once again, my own workplace has this issue and I know that my boss was instructed to “do whatever it takes” to keep the people we have in positions that are not being eliminated, regardless of performance, due to budgetary issues up the chain. And thus, Slackers #1, #2, and #3 continue on. I feel for you, especially when they impact your productivity & morale. Hang in there!

  13. LoremIpsum*

    The problems aren’t just evident to you. Everyone that comes in contact with the person is likely aware, too, which can reflect poorly on your department – or you as a manager.

    It is a very long day when you not only have to assign the work, then explain what went wrong, and then re-do it all yourself because it is above the other person’s ability.

  14. BRR*

    Definitely in this situation let him go. I can see scenarios where having a person is better than no person, but here it sounds like it’s more work to have them there than if they weren’t.

    1. Jennifer*

      It depends: does the guy do any work at all and if he does it, is it correct? Or does he do jack shit and if he does anything, it’s riddled with errors? If it’s the latter, then I’d say “no person” is better because he’s only causing more work. If it’s the former, then you’re still doing your job without him anyway and anything he does is a “bonus,” so better than nothing.

  15. The Other Dawn*

    I’ve been in this position more than once. I feel 99.9% of the time, it’s best to get rid of the problem employee. It’s a drain on morale, as well as time and resources.

    We once had someone at my former bank who absolutely could not understand our transaction processing system. She could do the simple stuff, but if she made a mistake and had to correct and then reprocess a transaction? Holy Hell! It became a huge cluster that was a drain on my time (since I was there since Day One, I knew the system well and understood how the loan processing system worked). She would correct, process, correct again, correct again, process three times; it was awful. This is someone that should have been let go since processing was a big, important part of her job.

    In another case, it was an executive. He was awful: condescending; not a “details” person, which was important in his particular role; and liked to yell a lot. But, he was providing some value to the CEO at that time and wasn’t let go for many months. He was dealing with troubled loans and the foreclosure process, which can be complicated and time consuming, and he was very good at that. The CEO didn’t have the capacity to deal with those things at that time, so he kept him on until those cases were wrapped up. Plus, it can take awhile to replace an executive; it doesn’t usually happen within the same timeframes as a regular employee. Sure, we didn’t want him around, but we knew that he was providing some value at a critical time.

  16. LNB*

    I once had a subpar employee send the wrong person an offer letter, send out rejection letters like candy after her initial screening (therefore inviting awkwardness when HR had to re-invite candidates for interviews after superb candidates didn’t pan out), and then CC the candidate Wendy rather than program manager Wendy in an email. It was a disaster. I say a bad employee can be much worse than no employee at all.

  17. IT_guy*

    I worked as a government contractor for several years and had this problem. We had a contractor who had at least two side business and spent at least 30% of his time (while he was billing the government) managing them. Unfortunately he really was as smart as he thought as he was. This continued for over 2 years until he got into a heated confrontation with his supervisor (me). It was noted the by the government employee who I reported to that we had a crisis, and I was instructed to “Tell Bob that he needs to stay at his desk and fix it.” When I did as instructed, we had a heated argument that almost got out of control. He was walked out the door that day and in 3 months we had a replacement.

    We should have done this 2 years earlier.

  18. JM in England*

    I had such an employee at OldJob too.

    They did hardly any work but also had the cheek to say that the rest of us were not pulling our weight!! They were protected by the fact that their spouse was quite high up in the company and when our then-boss tried to discipline them, they complained to HR about being bullied & harassed. This is in spite of it stating clearly in the company handbook that clear, objective criticism of poor performance does NOT count as bullying…………….

  19. Ann O'Nemity*

    I can totally understand the reluctance to fire if you know you can’t hire a replacement.

    My team dealt with a similar problem last year. One of the employees wasn’t meeting expectations and the rest of the team had to pick up the slack. As the manager, I had to spend extra time reviewing and coaching. My boss told me a rehire would never be approved.

    I made the decision to fire the employee anyway. It’s hard to say if things got better or worse. Sure, the company saved money. And yes, there was a temporary morale boost for the team. But long term, we all ended up working extra hours to absorb this person’s responsibilities. Although the problem employee wasn’t carrying their own weight, they weren’t a net negative either. I’m still trying to fix the morale problem; it’s just shifted from blaming the problem employee to blaming management.

  20. Menacia*

    My coworker was out for six months on STD, for an illness of unknown origin. He’s always been a low performer, and is constantly *sick*. What was made crystal clear in those 6 months? He’s NOT a highly contributing member of the team, and we got along just fine without him! Now he’s back, he came in half days for the first two weeks, the next two full-time weeks he took both Fridays off because, as he put in an email to all of us, “I am taking a vacation day tomorrow………….and yes, thanks to short term disability, I do still have some vacation time remaining.” Um, WTF?

    1. Jennifer*

      Hah. This reminds me of a coworker who always had to be out sick for just as long as she was out on vacation.

    2. Teapot, Teapot, and Teapot, LLP*

      I totally read that as “…STD, an illness of unknown origin.” What is wrong with me.

      Then again, he’s disappearing for weeks at a time, only to come back and be an inconvenience, then go away again. Maybe just think of him as Herpes Dan whenever you see him one of his e-mails come through.

  21. Dasha*

    “I’ve actually been in situations after firing someone where, while waiting to hire the person’s 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 members was better than having a bad performer around.”

    I have seen this happen before. It’s crazy, but still makes sense.

  22. QOTM*

    Bad employee = significantly worse than no employee.

    When you are underwater it is so tempting to hire someone, anyone who might get you out of it. Like a siren song. We have a rule on my team that we must be excited about a candidate to hire them. Not “he’s fine,” not “I guess she could do it,” but actual excitement about what the candidate can bring to the team. This has not steered us wrong.

  23. Ja'Crispy*

    We’re in the same situation (I work in a public sector). Nobody is fired because if they are the position is immediately classified as closed unless it’s deemed urgent. Deeming it urgent requires submission to several committees AFTER the position is open (you can’t do it in preparation of hiring another person). So if you do manage to oust someone who is simply a poor performer you’re looking at at least 4 months of absolutely zero output. (And a chance they’ll freeze hiring on that position because by this point the work has been distributed on a ‘temporary’ basis but see that means we don’t need another person!)

    We have several placeholder people – they generally squeeze them out by not pushing them for reclassification. Since we get no cost of living raises, this effectively freezes them where they are. Our retirement payout is determined by our 3 highest paid years, so they generally scramble to jump ship pretty quickly.

    It’s the worst system I’ve ever worked in.

  24. Charityb*

    I think there are some scenarios where keeping a bad employee might be better than firing them. In a lot of the cases where a slacker employee coasts, this employee’s continued survival is due to endemic problems with upper management. When you have top management decreeing that no one will ever be hired to fill this position, or managers insisting on holding to poor performers for emotional reasons, or bizarre political empire-building, it’s probably better to have a slacker on the payroll than not. That way, all of the employees can blame the dysfunction in the workplace on that one person and be unaware with the fact that this situation is created and enabled by management.

  25. Octopus's Gardener*

    We’ve got one of these at work. Unfortunately, his father is in upper management and we were forced to hire him. My boss’s response has been to try and be good buddies with this guy, which is completely unprofessional IMO.

    My morale has been in the toilet for quite some time now.

  26. Poppy*

    We had a position (let’s say teapot marketing) that seemed to attract difficult people. First person didn’t like marketing, always seemed to be offsite for unexpected meetings, and couldn’t tell the boss what the marketing plan was. They were replaced by an eager new person who didn’t do much marketing, thought they deserved a 4x salary increase because they “worked with computers”, and wanted a lot of handholding. A lot of my time got sucked into helping them with their reports and being a sounding board for every single idea. We completely eliminated the position, and it was definitely a relief to just do the work instead of trying to get my coworker to do it.

    But now that that position is gone, and my regular workload is picking up, the department head is having to make a case to the executives for why we still need a teapot marketer and all the activities that person could do if we got the right employee.

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