how to fire someone for mediocre work when they’re trying hard

A reader writes:

I was recenty promoted to oversee a team of 3. One woman on the team has worked in her job for 2 years, but she has never been able to fully perform her job responsibilities. Unfortunately, my company hired this woman for a job she’s simply not qualified for. The employee readily admits that is true, and is very receptive to training and coaching. She’s improved significantly in the 3 months I’ve worked with her, but I am certain it will take years to get her the kind of training and experience she really needs.

However, the rest of my team and I are overwhelmed with a lot of work. I’m working 11-12 hour days in part to cover the work she can’t do and to spend time teaching her things. Plus, she drags the rest of the team down asking for help. For what she earns, I know I could easily hire someone a lot more productive and knowledgable.

I can let her go via a “no fault termination” with severance, but I feel horrible because none of this is her fault and I know she will be devastated. Plus, she’s been allowed to be in this role for over 2 years and it never bothered anyone before, so how can I justify it being a problem now? I honestly just don’t know what the right thing to do is — if I keep her, we’ll suffer; if I fire her, I’ll feel like I’ve discarded a very loyal and hardworking employee.

Any advice on options or how to move forward?

Well, first, kudos to you for taking the problem on, rather than not addressing it, as other managers in your organization have apparently done. When managers neglect to take on performance issues, they’re abdicating one of their most fundamental responsibilities, and that’s just as true when the employee is trying really hard as when they’re not. It’s often easier to deal with emotionally when someone isn’t even trying, of course — it’s much harder when the person is genuinely working hard — but ultimately your job is to address the problem either way.

That said, there are some ways that you might adjust your approach when someone is trying hard (versus when they’re just slacking off). None of them involve keeping a mediocre performer on, but there are ways to handle it especially kindly.

And when you’re dealing with performance problems, kindness always starts with honesty. Many managers mistakenly believe that it’s kinder not to give honest feedback or address the problems straightforwardly — but this is wrongheaded. It’s far, far kinder to let someone know how you see their work than to keep them in the dark, and it’s far kinder to let someone see the writing on the wall than to blindside them by firing them out of the blue when you’ve run out of options or patience.

So honesty is where you want to start. Sit down and have a candid conversation with her. Acknowledge that she works hard and is receptive to feedback, but that ultimately you need someone in the role who can do X, Y, and Z without significant training and coaching. Talk about what you do see as her strengths, but explain that the job requires different ones.

As for justifying why this is a problem now when it wasn’t before, you don’t need to get into why previous managers didn’t address this with her; you can keep your focus on what you need in the role. If she asks why no one has raised this with you before, it’s okay to say, “I can’t speak to what Bob or Jane needed when you were working with them, but what I need from this role is ___.” (And remember — even though this is a hard message, you want to be kind. Make sure you use a tone that conveys empathy, not one that contains frustration or discomfort.)

From there, you can offer her two options: She can pursue a short-term improvement plan and try to meet the bar you’re describing, with the understanding that you would need to let her go if she hasn’t met that bar at the end of, say, 4-6 weeks, or you can jointly form a transition plan that will give her time to search for another job while giving you time to look for a replacement.

Assuming that you think the joint agreement for a transition is the better option, be honest about that, because you don’t want to encourage her to take a path that you think is doomed for failure. You could say something like, “I’m happy to give you a chance to pursue the improvement plan option if you want to, but I would hate for it to turn your experience here negative. I would much rather work with you on a transition that meets your needs and ours.” You can point out that this route would give her more time to look for a new job than she might otherwise have, and that she’d be able to say that she’s still employed at your company while she’s looking. It’s also okay to explain that this helps you too because it prevents a vacancy in the role.

Now, you don’t need to offer both these options. If you’re unwilling to give her another 4-6 weeks for the improvement plan option — and you might be, if you know that the result is a foregone conclusion — you can skip that piece of it. But there are some advantages to offering it — she’ll feel that she’s been given a real chance, and the rest of your staff (if they hear from her about what happened) is likely to feel that she was treated with the same respect and fairness that they themselves would want. And this matters — because when you’re firing someone, the rest of your staff is your most important audience. They’ll watch how you treat people in that context and draw conclusions about how well they’re likely to be treated themselves.

(By the way, it’s important to note that you don’t want to offer the planned transition option to someone who you don’t trust to handle it well. You wouldn’t offer this option to an employee who you thought capable of, say, sabotaging the company’s database during her remaining time, or whose work was so bad that she’d do real damage if left in her role for another 4-6 weeks, or who’d badmouth you or the company to coworkers while sticking around. And if you saw signs of any of this sort of thing during the transition, you’d need to curtail the transition earlier than originally planned.)

Overall, though, the key here is to simply be honest with your employee about what’s going on, and to make the conversation as collaborative as possible. The feel of the meeting should be that while the current situation isn’t working out, you want to jointly figure out a way forward that will be best for both the employee and your organization.

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