NEW: Michael Phillips

How do you best deal with poor performers on staff? There’s no easy answer, but here are some guidelines to get your business to the best answer.

Coach or cull?

Michael Phillips

I was dropped from the first XI cricket team in high school after a run of successive ducks, and I have to tell you this was difficult at the time. After all, I was only one innings away from getting back into form, right?

Well no, it turns out I was three innings away and all of them I had to do in the second XI and earn the right to move up once again. 

This brings me to poor performers in the work environment and the best way to handle them. Do you coach them through the bad patch or cull them and move on to someone else?

Unfortunately this is not a clear yes or no type question, as every business and every employee is different, but for the most part, I believe there are some general rules that can be followed.

First and foremost, you need to take the emotion out of the decision. If you’re too attached, there is a good chance you’ll make the wrong decision. It’s a bit like holding on to a share that has declined in value, but because you’re so emotionally attached you spend your time willing that share upwards. This rarely eventuates; more often than not, that share is put in the “bottom drawer” and five years later you’re still losing.

Once you’ve set aside your emotions, you need to sit down and look at the facts. How long has the person been working here, how poor is their performance, and what are the reasons for the decline?

There are a few options, but I’ll deal with the most obvious. The first is the employee who has worked for the business for a number of years but has begun to perform poorly, and the second is a new employee who doesn’t appear to be up-to-scratch.

For the first employee, this is where it becomes a bit less clear cut. Are they tired in their role, annoyed with an aspect of management or decision that has been made, or are they just not able to change along with the business?

My advice here is to coach first and cull later. These are the people that have significant knowledge of the business and it may be as simple as finding a new role for them within the business or sorting out any issues they may have.

For the second employee, assuming you have given appropriate training and worked closely with them, the most appropriate strategy may be to cull. Harsh, I know, but sometimes you must cut your losses early to stave off any future heartache.

The first one or two months an employee works for you tells you a lot about them as a person, their work ethic and their ability to succeed in the business. If you are questioning these things early on, then chances are you’re right. But once again, assess all the details of the situation before making the decision – but assess early, take the emotion out of it, and back your decision.

The biggest concern in discussing issues like this within a business is that you are affecting people’s lives, and yes, firing people is difficult – but there is one very important thing to think of when making such a tough decision. Poor performance is infectious; it can creep into the culture and affect all parts of the business.

So don’t just think of the one person that is affected; think of all the other employees that have to deal with it. They work very hard for the business and do not need a poor performer bringing down the standard.

Just like a cricket team doesn’t need one person dragging the chain and getting ducks regularly. A team is successful when everyone contributes.


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