My worst employee ever: Competent and smart, but bad at the job

Your employee just doesn’t seem to grasp the job. When do you intervene?

Employee/manager relationship scale with smileys

If an employee isn’t performing, how long should you give them to improve?

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

It was the late 1980s. Andrea Brice was 28 and a first-time manager while completing her engineering degree. When I asked her recently about the worst employee she’d ever had — or at least one who had posed a significant management challenge — she remembered a data-entry clerk immediately.

“Perfectly nice young woman who was competent, smart, but not good at her job,” said Brice, now the founder and chief data officer of the data intelligence startup Willowfinch. “[Sometimes] you know somebody is not good, and they’re never going to get good no matter how much training you can give them, because it just doesn’t resonate.”

After a year and a half, it was clear the employee’s performance wasn’t going to improve. She hadn’t committed a fireable offense, so Brice didn’t fire her, but when the clerk expressed frustration about the demands of her job, Brice encouraged her to find a new one.

“She was the one who was like, ‘Andrea, this is so stressful. I can’t,’ and I’m like, ‘But this is the job, so you know what — I will give you a happy recommendation,’” Brice said.

That conversation wasn’t the hard part for Brice: The clerk was more interested in her music, anyway, and ended up going in a different direction with her career. The tough part was helping the clerk realize that she wasn’t happy with her job, Brice said.

When is it time to intervene?

If an employee isn’t performing, how long should you give them to improve? Now, with decades of experience under her belt, Brice is a “firm believer in 90 days.” But it’s not always so simple, said Deb Muller, founder and CEO of the employee relations software maker HR Acuity.

“It really depends on the size and the scope of the role,” Muller said. “Does the role have [a] tremendous impact where you might not have as long to make a decision, because the impact of them not doing their job is tremendous?”

In this case, the stakes were low enough that Brice was able to put up with the underperformance for a year and a half. But that was likely a year and a half of Brice spending extra time managing her, Muller said.

“In retrospect, I would bet that when [Brice] looks back, she thinks about the time she had to spend on it, all the re-work she had to spend on it as well,” Muller said.

Don’t just watch them struggle

An underperformer can negatively affect other team members’ performance: Someone who’s unable to do their job can block peers from doing their own. Colleagues will notice that an underperformer isn’t pulling their weight, which can strain a culture and demotivate teammates, Muller said.

And by the time the clerk came forward, she likely had been unhappy in her job for a long time. That may be a sign that an earlier intervention was in order.

“It’s not fun to not be successful at work,” Muller said. “Many times as a manager, you think you’re doing the person a favor by really prolonging the inevitable. In most cases, you’re not.”

As a manager, it can be hard to give negative feedback or put an employee on a performance improvement plan, Muller said, but it’s better than watching them struggle and pretending everything is OK.

First off, expectations need to be laid out clearly: Does the employee have an accurate job description for their role? Do they have the right resources to succeed?

If the expectations have been stated clearly and they’re still underperforming, it’s crucial to give that feedback so the employee has the opportunity to improve. Document everything from the beginning, whether or not you’re sharing that documentation with the employee, so there’s no confusion or finger-pointing if an employee’s performance doesn’t pick up, Muller said.

And if a performance improvement plan is in order, give them the chance to achieve some “quick wins” that could help them gain momentum. Then, you should check in with the employee at least every two weeks to watch their progress.

“That way, you’re going to see: Can they get those wins? Can they do even a little bit?” Muller said. “Are they demonstrating the behaviors that they actually want to succeed in the job?”

Behaviors drive results, even when the results aren’t immediately apparent. So if an employee’s behaviors are improving, they may be on the road to success.

And if they’re not, it’s probably time to get the employee out of the company, Muller said.

When to counsel out vs. terminate

Brice was able to get the clerk to move on simply by encouraging her to look for another job. Sometimes, just getting repeated negative feedback will spur an employee to start looking for a new role. But it’s not always that easy, according to Muller.

“You’re giving that person the control,” Muller said. “You’re allowing them to stay with the business, which can be costly. You’re not putting someone in the role who can do the role.”

Muller said she would opt for termination if an employee didn’t improve after receiving feedback and having an opportunity to turn things around.

One final piece of advice for managers as they take performance measures: Make sure you’re doing so consistently across the organization.

“If you’re holding someone up to a certain standard, make sure you’re doing the same for all employees,” Muller said. “You want to be careful that you’re not treating certain employees differently than others.”

Correction: This story was updated to correct Andrea Brice's job title. This story was updated March 23, 2022.


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