Bad Employee, or Just a Bad Fit? How to Tell If an Underperforming Worker Is in the Wrong Role

“Hire slowly and fire quickly” is a good rule—most of the time.

Other times, firing quickly could actually be a big mistake, such as when the employee in question is not necessarily “bad” but more like a bad fit for the current role.

Understanding the distinction is important because:

  1. Hiring is expensive and time consuming.
  2. Top talent can be hard to find and develop.
  3. Human beings aren’t expendable and shouldn’t be treated as such.

So before you decide an employee “just isn’t working out,” you owe it to that employee, your organization, and yourself to know without a doubt you’re doing the right thing.

How are you going to do that? By examining the employee’s attitude, work habits, and traits.

ATTITUDE

Unfortunately, some employees are no fun to be around. They’re routinely sarcastic, uncooperative, unreliable, and they do what they please. If working on the task you assigned doesn’t float their boat, they'll either not do it or do it shoddily. When these workers consistently underperform, letting them go is generally a wise move.

On the other hand, an underperforming employee who’s helpful, pleasant, and willing to learn and be coached might be worth some additional effort on your part.

WORK HABITS

Poor work habits include frequent tardiness or last-minute call outs, disorganization, error-laden work, and too-frequent breaks, for starters.

Some employees have never been taught good work habits, while others have slipped into bad habits, sometimes aided by a more “hands off” management style. What have you determined about your employee?

Be brutally honest. Could it be that another manager—for example, one with the patience, skill, desire, and time to teach this employee good habits—might find him or her to be a true asset? Or could it be that the employee isn’t quite ready to function as an independent contributor and needs to spend a little more time at the dependent contributor level before moving on?

Either way, you’ll want to know before handing the employee his pink slip.

TRAITS

Whether to “hire for traits or hire for skill” has been debated in the industry for ages, but this really isn’t an either/or question. Your employee needs the right traits and the right skills, although he might need more of one than the other, depending on the specific job and your management style.

Unlike habits and even attitude, traits aren’t learnable (but they can be enhanced with practice and determination). This is because traits define who we are and make up our personality.

It’s entirely possible that your underperforming employee has the right traits for the wrong job and if placed in the right job would do better than “alright.”

Such mismatches occur more often than you might think, because many bosses are still taught that good management means “fixing” what’s “wrong” with employees rather than assigning work that plays to their strengths. Combine that philosophy with continually expanding/morphing jobs due to layoffs, downsizing, and quick-changing customer needs, and it really shouldn’t come as a surprise if some employees find themselves trapped in a role that no longer capitalizes on their most positive traits.

Examples of positive work traits include assertiveness, introversion, extroversion, detail orientation, conscientiousness, gregariousness, analytical ability, problem-solving ability, creativity, curiosity, diligence, flexibility, and resourcefulness, to name a few.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

So, what does it all mean?

Here’s what it means.

If you have an employee with positive work traits, a decent attitude, and good work habits who’s nonetheless missing the mark in his or her particular role, another role within your department or organization might be the answer. The trick is to find that role, which might be in the employee’s past (i.e., time to correct an ill-conceived promotion) or off to his side (i.e., a lateral move). Wherever the role exists, however, you’d do your company proud to find it.

The key to your employee’s successful transition is three-fold. You must:

  1. Know your employee. Even an employee whose performance underwhelms overall does some things really well. What are those things?
  2. Know your job. What traits and skills are needed for success?
  3. Know why the employee and the current job are a mismatch. Is the employee unwilling or unable to do the job? “Unwilling” is a red flag, while “unable” might signal something else.

SOUNDS LIKE WORK. WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?

It is work, we won’t lie. Investing in people takes work, not to mention time. The return on investment can be enormous, however.

Imagine you’re the struggling employee, and your manager gives you a chance to redeem yourself in a new role that actually fits your temperament and talents. You’ll not only do a good job, but you’ll be more loyal to your employer, to boot.

Now consider the alternative, which is namely a job search that requires time, effort and money for a candidate who may or may not eventually do the job as well as the person already in your employ.

Sometimes people have to be let go from organizations because things aren’t working out, and there’s no way to work them out.

Other times, however, it’s best to take the time to figure out what can be worked out, because you don’t want to mislabel a challenged, but good, employee with good traits and good habits as bad when the real problem might just be the fit.

Crystal Spraggins

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR is an HR professional and freelance writer with a niche in careers and the workplace.

Crystal has 17 years of experience as an HR generalist helping small- to mid-sized companies develop policies, programs, and procedures that increase profits, maximize efficiency, and enhance positive employee relations. Crystal is a frequent contributor to various workplace-related websites and maintains a personal blog, HR BlogVOCATE.

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