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How to Cope with Permanently Unsuccessful Employees

We’ve all passed those storefronts where a succession of stores or restaurants open and close quickly and thought, “That’s a doomed location.”

Some employees seem to take on this kind of role in an organization. They’re moved from position to position and from department to department. No department really wants them, and eventually there’s no expectation that they’ll perform significantly better in a different setting. Often, they’ve been moved around so much that it becomes a game of “Tag! You’re it!” between supervisors.

This kind of unproductive shuffling occurs most frequently in privately held and nonprofit organizations, where decision-makers are more likely to indulge in purely emotional responses (including guilt) over the unsuccessful employee’s personal situation. Managers can lose sight of the impact on the employees who have to work with the unsuccessful employee, and they often discount the concrete negative impact on the work and, ultimately, the organization’s overall mission.

Some unsuccessful employees were terrific at the start of their career, but were unable to adapt as their work or environment changed. Sometimes they’re a family member, a friend of a friend, or a “favor placement.” Whatever the origin of the poor fit, at some point these individuals cease to be productive, and, intentionally or not, can become a distraction and an obstruction to others. Their very presence may hamper productivity, creativity, and sound analysis, and can mean that others won’t work as hard or won’t feel free to speak openly about problems or opportunities.

Exploring Your Options

What turns a perennial bad fit into a management problem is the absence of candor around the entire situation. Many of these poor misfits know they’re not wanted, no matter what pretty story they’re told about the important new role they’re going to play. So if you’re the most recent manager tagged, and you’re determined to deal with the situation in a businesslike way, think through all the angles before you make a move.

Consider whether the unfortunate employee could provide sufficient value by working in a reduced role, with fewer days per week, or remotely. One of these options might help them maintain both pride of employment and benefits.

It’s also worth trying to talk with them one more time about what is truly required for success in the role — not to horrify them with the size of their performance gap, but to help them understand just how high the bar is set. If their role or the way the organization conducts business has changed over time, you can point that out.

But if there’s no productive role and no amount of support you can provide to help them be successful, plan a graceful, logical exit strategy — one that includes meaningful severance and an eye to their future activities.

Even if you don’t have the authority to initiate the exit process yourself, clarifying your options may help you work with your management to find the best resolution possible for a good person who happens to be an organizational burden. And be sure to consult with counsel before exercising any of your options, particularly if you’re setting a new precedent, or dealing with a protected class of workers.

Don’t Terminate for These Reasons

Even the most unsuccessful employees should be treated with dignity. Let them — and the people who care about them — think well of your organization, even if there is no longer room for them there.

Avoid the kind of sloppy management that happens in so many places when one or more executives finally gets fed up. Be sure to avoid these insensitive and ineffective strategies:

  • Don’t try to “catch” unsuccessful employees performing badly so you can discipline them out the door. They’ve been performing badly for years.
  • Don’t try to “send them a message” in hope that when they finally understand how dissatisfied everyone is with them, they’ll self-terminate. They’ve hung on despite feeling out of place for a long time.
  • And don’t suddenly get cheap. The organization has been paying for these unsuccessful employees to be there for years, so forcing them out without care is unnecessarily unkind and overly harsh.

All’s Well That Ends Well

While it will be a relief not to have to pay for this person’s salary and benefits anymore, it’s well worth it to ramp down your expenses slowly if the extra spending will help ensure a smooth, respectful, amicable departure. Offer outplacement help, preferably from outside the organization and off the physical premises. And try to provide external training so they’ll be better equipped for whatever their next experience is going to be.

And don’t forget the retirement or departure party. Despite the challenges of the situation, many staffers or customers — even those who’ve suffered from the bad fit — have a fondness for these long-tenured people. Letting colleagues and customers express that affection is good for all parties.

Onward and upward,


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