What to Do About a Pretty Bad/Good Enough Employee

Most leaders will encounter this dilemma at least once in their careers:  An employee who’s pretty bad on some days and just good enough to get by on others. An employee who shows up consistently, but doesn’t ultimately contribute a whole lot. A manager who gets results, but alienates teammates in the process. A person who’s well liked, but has zero interest in growing the company. What’s a leader to do about an employee who’s too bad to keep, but too good to boot? 

Employees like this are experts (not always intentionally) at leaving you in a state of suspense. Their lackadaisical attitude or less than stellar performance takes you right up to the brink of firing them. And then somehow, uncannily, they turn it around just long enough for you to think, well maybe they’re not so bad after all. It’s an endless, fruitless loop that’s draining your time and energy. 

With a situation like this, the first thing you can do is stop weighing the pros and cons or the bad and the good. That’s just a recipe for reinforcing your ambivalence. Instead, you can get more clear about the principles (and any line in the sand) that’s most important to you. 

You already know there’s no one right or easy way to address this. So we won’t try to give you any stock answers. Instead, we’ll share what finally made a difference for some leaders we’ve worked with over the years. Perhaps one of these insights will unlock something for you, too. 

Remember Why You Hired Them.  When we’re caught up in the drama of a good enough employee, it’s easy to lose sight of why you hired that person in the first place. Were you wrong back then? Or is it that you’re not doing what you should be doing now to cultivate what first caught your attention? 

Use the Keeper Test. This talent management strategy, made famous by Netflix, asks the question, “Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving for a similar job at a competitor or peer company, would I fight hard to keep?” If you employ a person you wouldn’t fight for at all, then respectfully, he or she holds a position that could be taken by someone you would fight for. 

That “One Bad Apple” Thing is Real.  When low performance is tolerated for a long period of time, even the good eggs on a team can be de-energized by the bad apple. It’s short sighted to ignore a poor performer at the expense of others who do want to grow. 

It’s Not About Firing, it’s About Recruiting. Let’s just acknowledge that it’s always difficult to let someone go no matter what the circumstance. But when you picture a termination conversation, is your first thought, “We’ll never be able to find her replacement”? If so, take a hard look at your efforts and capabilities in finding and attracting new talent. It may be holding you back. 

It’s Not About Them, It’s About You. When we keep circling around the same problem without taking any new action, it’s sometimes a sign that we’re part of the problem. For example, have you been hesitant to take an employee under your wing because you’re not confident in your coaching skills? Are you dragging your feet on terminating someone you know you should, because you hate being the bad guy? 

It’s not compassionate to tolerate persistent underperformance. And it’s not respectful to leave an employee with unfulfilled potential up to the fates. 



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