When to Fire the Stubborn Low Performing Employee

In December I posted on Ability, Skill, or Will?, how to deal with the most stubborn persistent employee performance issues. If an employee fails to improve his/her performance despite your regular coaching and putting him on warning, at some point, you simply have to follow through. Whether and when to fire an employee is always a tough decision -- sometimes it is a business decision you have to make. At some point, the last chances have to stop.

First: If the person is hopeless, the costs of turnover are actually a fiction. The primary costs of the bad hire have already been incurred. Continuing to employ the person is a greater cost than losing him/her.

Second: You shouldn't dedicate any more time, energy, and money to an employee you don't believe will improve with time.

Third: Depending on the situation and the person, giving an employee with persistent bad performance yet another last chance may simply offer him/her a chance to bad-mouth you, the team, and the organization; a chance to do bad work and cause problems; and a chance to steal or commit sabotage.

Fourth: If you've kept accurate written records of your management interactions with this person and his/her failure to perform, then you probably don't need to give the person a last chance to strengthen your case. Your case is already strong.

Sometimes managers tell me, "I really want to fire an employee, but we are already understaffed and everybody on our team is already overworked. I feel as if I cannot fire my low performers because then the remaining employees will have to work even harder." These managers want to know, "Isn't a fifty percent performance from a low performer sometimes better than having no employee in that role at all?"

My answer to that is N-O. No, no, no!

There are, however, times when it makes sense to hold on to a stubborn low performer for a little while longer. If you are super busy, you might as well squeeze one last day of grunt work out of the low performer. As my clients in the restaurant industry are fond of saying, "Never fire the dishwasher on Friday night!" That's right. Have that low performer wash as many filthy dishes as you can get him to wash -- all the worst pots and pans. And then fire him. Choose your timing carefully. But you have to fire the low performers if they refuse to improve. Fifty percent of an employee is not better than zero.

Ultimately, there are four reasons why you must fire stubborn low performers.

1. They get paid.

2. They cause problems that other employees have to fix.

3. High performers hate to work with low performers--and you can't afford to lose your high performers.

4. Low performers send a terrible message to everybody else: "Low performance is an option around here."

No way. It shouldn't be an option. If your team is overstaffed and overworked, then high performance is your only option. You have to be able to get more work and better work out of everyone. You cannot afford to have the negative energy and unnecessary problems of a stubborn low performer dragging down the rest of the team.

Firing an employee is one of the most unpleasant, scary things you'll ever have to do as a manager. But sometimes it just has to be done. You owe it to yourself, your team, and your organization. This is the extreme end of consequences in the workplace, but without hard consequences for persistent failure, accountability is meaningless.