Why Poor Performers Don't Get Fired

Alison Green looks at four reasons managers shy away from cutting poor performers.

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Almost everyone has had the experience of working alongside someone who is a chronically poor performer—and then puzzling over the question of why nothing is being done about it.

The answer is that nothing is being done about it because your manager isn't doing her job and is allowing her desire to be nice and avoid difficult conversations to trump her fundamental obligations as a manager—obligations like holding the bar high and expecting people to adhere to it, warning them when they're falling short, and taking action when warnings don't work.

No one likes to fire people. But firing, at its core, is about a fundamental commitment to having great people. If you believe that having good people makes all the difference in a manager's ability to get results—and it does—then a corollary has to be that some people will need to be removed. You can do everything else right—setting ambitious goals and clear expectations, delegating effectively, giving feedback, and so forth—but if you are unwilling to fire people who aren't performing at the level you need, you will never accomplish what you could.

Yet the vast majority of managers err on the side of not firing when they should, and their organizations suffer as a result. I've certainly been guilty of it myself and have realized many times after the fact that I should have acted much sooner, especially after eventual replacements demonstrated the opportunity cost of not having had stars in the jobs all along.

So, why don't managers fire when they should?

  • Feeling sorry for the employee: Of course, you feel sympathy—getting fired isn't anyone's desired outcome. But managers who handle the situation directly and honestly make sure employees know when it's coming and have had a chance to improve. And not only do you do a disservice to your employer by keeping a low performer on staff, but you do a disservice to the employee, too, in many cases, by keeping her in a job that she can't thrive in.
    • Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of time it will take to hire and train a re placement: Managers tend to overestimate how much time it will take a new employee to become trained and start delivering value compared to the person currently in the job. Strong performers will get up to speed far faster than you realize. Besides, even if this weren't true, it's better to have a short period of downtime followed by an all-out stellar performance, as opposed to years of mediocrity (or worse).
      • Believing they haven't invest ed enough in helping the person: Yes, managers should help people succeed—but within reason. You'll never have done absolutely everything you could to create the optimal environment for every staff member to excel in. But ask yourself what top performers have done in similar contexts: Would they have found a way to succeed with the same amount of resources and guidance?
        • Worrying about the impact of a firing on other employees: Managers should worry instead about the morale impact of keeping the low performer around. It's likely that other employees have spotted the problems and will be relieved when they're resolved. Good people want to work with other good people, and they want to know that their employer is discerning when it comes to results. Their quality of life goes up when they work in environments where standards are high, accountability is clear, and they can count on their coworkers to pull their own weight.
        • Ultimately, though, the above "reasons" are really all excuses. The most common reason managers wait too long in these situations is to avoid discomfort or hassle. And just as when dating someone who you secretly know isn't right for you, putting off the day of reckoning is unfair to the person who could be using this time to find something that is right.

          Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.

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