Workplace

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.

Policy

How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Fintech

From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Broadcom is reportedly in talks to acquire VMware

It hasn't been long since it left the ownership of Dell Technologies.

Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Broadcom is said to be in discussions with VMware to buy the cloud computing company for as much as $50 billion.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Podcasts

Should startups be scared?

Stock market turmoil is making VCs skittish. Could now be the best time to start a company?

Dark times could be ahead for startups.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

This week, we break down why Elon Musk is tweeting about the S&P 500's ESG rankings — and why he might be right to be mad. Then we discuss how tech companies are failing to prevent mass shootings, and why the new Texas social media law might make it more difficult for platforms to be proactive.

Then Protocol's Biz Carson, author of the weekly VC newsletter Pipeline, joins us to explain the state of venture capital amidst plunging stocks and declining revenues. Should founders start panicking? The answer might surprise you.

Keep Reading Show less
Caitlin McGarry

Caitlin McGarry is the news editor at Protocol.

Latest Stories
Bulletins