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Why waiting for that problem employee to quit is a bad idea

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Crystal Spraggins, SPHR

I’d taken on a part-time job as an office assistant at my son’s daycare, intending to use the extra money as a down-payment for a home. I was thrilled to have this second job, not just for the money but also because the owner and I (let’s call her Sandy) got along really well. She was a straight shooter with a good heart (my kind of person), and we often ended the day with a chat about the goings on at the center. This was before I entered the human resources profession and way before I became a manager.

One day, Sandy began complaining about one of her employees. She had a whole list of his transgressions to share, and share she did. After finishing, she sighed. And then she said it—the admission that would stay with me for the next seventeen years:

“I don’t want to fire him, but I sure wish he’d quit.”

It was my first real lesson in management and the crazy things managers do.

I was dumbfounded. “But you’re the boss,” I said. “If your employee isn’t doing the job to your satisfaction, why would you accept that?”

Why accept poor performance?

Turns out Sandy believed that firing the employee just wasn’t worth the effort. She’d have to confront him, articulate what she found objectionable about his performance (and probably hurt his feelings in the process), go to all the trouble of hiring someone else who might turn out to be worse, and manage the unemployment claim. Since the employee wasn’t doing a terrible job, it was just easier to let the situation be until he decided to up and make a move. (And several months later, he did.)

Years passed, and I entered the HR profession, only to learn that, well… managers hadn’t changed all that much. For some managers, apparently, the idea of firing someone is so unpleasant, they’d rather fool themselves into believing that if the employee isn’t embezzling money, stealing LOTS of supplies, absent every other day (several days each month is okay), or engaging in outright, in-your-face insubordination, she’s really not that bad.

Oy vey.

Look, firing someone should give you pause. It’s never nice, no matter how well deserved, and if you’re human it shouldn’t be. Any decent manager ought to be able to relate to the difficulty a job loss will create in someone’s life.

That said, I’ll tell you what I told one of my managers when he didn’t want me to fire someone who was doing a horrific job because he was concerned about her family finances (long story).

I said, “That’s considerate of you, but she needs to care about her family finances as much as you do, and it seems she doesn’t.”

Seriously. Sometimes you have to do what’s best for the common good.

You’re not doing anyone any favors

You aren’t doing your employee any favors when you don’t deal with his performance issues. He’s not being developed, and unless you think he’s going to work with you forever, that could hurt his long-term marketability.

But more than that, you aren’t helping your team (and its even worse if your underperforming/nonperforming employee is a manager with his own team). Yes, it’s a cliché, but a weak link compromises the entire chain. When you don’t deal with a problem employee:

  • Your other employees have to work harder to compensate.
  • Your ability to meet departmental and company goals is undermined.
  • Your integrity as a manager suffers.
  • Your company pays for services it’s not receiving.
  • Your overall performance standards are weakened.
  • Your other employees become resentful that you’re playing favorites.

Face it, there’s no upside to you not handling this problem. Your employees are watching, and they are not happy, even while they’re telling themselves that, technically, it’s none of their business. Trust me on this.

So do yourself and your team a solid and pop into your HR department for a little chat with your representative about your problem employee. He or she will be happy to advise you, I’m sure. That’ll be better than sitting around and hoping the employee quits.

You might not get as lucky as Sandy.

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