What do you do when … a beloved employee can’t perform?

Sam is a company man. He works hard, stays late, comes in on weekends, and he’s loyal. You can count on him for a great attitude, a smile. He picks up everyone’s mood! You love him — everyone loves him. He remembers everyone’s birthday and when his daughter got married, he invited everyone in the office to the wedding.

But Sam can’t seem to do anything right. He struggles with technology; there is no computer he can’t break. His work is full of errors. You’ve spent 5 years moving him around to various positions hoping that eventually you will find the right fit for him. But you are getting frustrated. Everything he does has errors and has to be redone  absolutely everything!

What to do with him? If you fire him the office will be crushed, but he is terrible at every job he’s had…

This is a tough situation, but one that’s all too common. So common in fact that Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, actually taught his divisional CEOs how to handle it. In his words:

At every performance review, employees are evaluated for both their performance and their values, and only four outcomes exist.

First, for employees with good performance and good values – onward and upward.

For those with poor performance and bad values – you’re outta here.

As for employees with good values but mediocre performance – the stance should be, we’ll give you another chance with more coaching. Your behavior has earned you that.

Which leaves the type of employee who most commonly brings companies to their knees: the one with the great performance and crummy values. The employee who doesn’t share ideas with co-workers, who belittles customers behind their backs, who kisses up to the hierarchy but kicks down his own people – all while bringing in the numbers. You’ve got to let these go.

Clearly, Sam was hired because it was apparent that his values matched those of the company. He is a standout in that area, the kind of employee that we want more of. And Welch says that when employees’ values match yours, you can work with them and help them improve.

But after five years, I’d say you’ve tried hard enough and long enough. I’d start considering how this feels from Sam’s perspective. How do you think it feels for him to be constantly making mistakes and disappointing you and the other members of the team? I’m sure he’s glad to have a job, but he’s likely coming to work everyday feeling like a failure, like he’s letting down the people he respects.

I’d say it’s time to release Sam to bless another organization with his talents. There is a place where he can succeed, and he needs you to be honest with him and tell him that you love his attitude and values, but you can’t tolerate poor performance.

I know you worry about how the rest of the team is going to take it, but you shouldn’t. I know they all love Sam, but they are likely resentful that they are having to re-do his work. If you have high performers on your team, they want to be around other high performers. They know that sometimes there are people who aren’t going to make it. Be honest with folks, “Sam was a model employee in many ways, but he just made too many mistakes and his skills didn’t fit what the company needed.” You’ll be surprised how many people come by and thank you for being intolerant of poor performers.

How would you handle this situation? Have you been in this situation? How did it go?

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