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.

Fintech

Election markets are far from a sure bet

Kalshi has big-name backing for its plan to offer futures contracts tied to election results. Will that win over a long-skeptical regulator?

Whether Kalshi’s election contracts could be considered gaming or whether they serve a true risk-hedging purpose is one of the top questions the CFTC is weighing in its review.

Photo illustration: Getty Images; Protocol

Crypto isn’t the only emerging issue on the CFTC’s plate. The futures regulator is also weighing a fintech sector that has similarly tricky political implications: election bets.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has until Oct. 28 to decide whether the New York-based startup Kalshi can offer a form of wagering up to $25,000 on which party will control the House of Representatives and Senate after the midterms. PredictIt, another online market for election trading, has also sued the regulator over its decision to cancel a no-action letter.

Keep Reading Show less
Ryan Deffenbaugh
Ryan Deffenbaugh is a reporter at Protocol focused on fintech. Before joining Protocol, he reported on New York's technology industry for Crain's New York Business. He is based in New York and can be reached at rdeffenbaugh@protocol.com.
Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Enterprise

The Uber verdict shows why mandatory disclosure isn't such a bad idea

The conviction of Uber's former chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, seems likely to change some minds in the debate over proposed cyber incident reporting regulations.

Executives and boards will now be "a whole lot less likely to cover things up," said one information security veteran.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If nothing else, the guilty verdict delivered Wednesday in a case involving Uber's former security head will have this effect on how breaches are handled in the future: Executives and boards, according to information security veteran Michael Hamilton, will be "a whole lot less likely to cover things up."

Following the conviction of former Uber chief security officer Joe Sullivan, "we likely will get better voluntary reporting" of cyber incidents, said Hamilton, formerly the chief information security officer of the City of Seattle, and currently the founder and CISO at cybersecurity vendor Critical Insight.

Keep Reading Show less
Kyle Alspach

Kyle Alspach ( @KyleAlspach) is a senior reporter at Protocol, focused on cybersecurity. He has covered the tech industry since 2010 for outlets including VentureBeat, CRN and the Boston Globe. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at kalspach@protocol.com.

Climate

Delta and MIT are running flight tests to fix contrails

The research team and airline are running flight tests to determine if it’s possible to avoid the climate-warming effects of contrails.

Delta and MIT just announced a partnership to test how to mitigate persistent contrails.

Photo: Gabriela Natiello/Unsplash

Contrails could be responsible for up to 2% of all global warming, and yet how they’re formed and how to mitigate them is barely understood by major airlines.

That may be changing.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol covering climate. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.

Entertainment

Inside Amazon’s free video strategy

Amazon has been doubling down on original content for Freevee, its ad-supported video service, which has seen a lot of growth thanks to a deep integration with other Amazon properties.

Freevee’s investment into original programming like 'Bosch: Legacy' has increased by 70%.

Photo: Tyler Golden/Amazon Freevee

Amazon’s streaming efforts have long been all about Prime Video. So the company caught pundits by surprise when, in early 2019, it launched a stand-alone ad-supported streaming service called IMDb Freedive, with Techcrunch calling the move “a bit odd.”

Nearly four years and two rebrandings later, Amazon’s ad-supported video efforts appear to be flourishing. Viewership of the service grew by 138% from 2020 to 2021, according to Amazon. The company declined to share any updated performance data on the service, which is now called Freevee, but a spokesperson told Protocol the performance of originals in particular “exceeded expectations,” leading Amazon to increase investments into original content by 70% year-over-year.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories
Bulletins