When to Pull the Plug on an Employee

In a hiring seminar, the instructor offered the following bit of shocking data:

He asked us to guess how much time normally elapsed between the moment a manager knew with certainty an employee was not going to make it in their job, and when the actual action (firing, reassignment, etc.) was taken .

When I heard the question, I thought back to my own experiences.  Usually, this situation began with hints of problems -- hints that I normally tried to ignore.  Eventually, enough evidence would stack up against the person, that I couldn't justify or overlook it anymore.  Once I came to grips with these facts, there was always a delay prior to taking action -- for any one of a number of reasons.  I might decide it would be difficult to find a replacement, or a change might derail an ongoing project, or perhaps the impact on other employees would be negative.  The list of reasons (rationalizations, really) was long, and they only worked at delaying the inevitable.

I estimated that the first half of the timetable (the interval from "hints" to "certainty") might be as much as a year.  But the instructor was only asking about the second half (the interval from "certainty" to "action") only.  For this part of the timetable, I guessed a typical delay might be as long as six months.

I was astounded to find out that this part alone alone took 18 months on average!  That's a year and a half of wasted time.  Add that to the one year it took from the first hints of issues, and 30 months would be an average delay.  And to add further injury, suffering through the delay usually meant tolerating substandard performance.  All because the manager was trying to convince himself, and muster the courage to take action.

All those rationalizations really come down to one thing -- not wanting to face up to the fact that unpleasant action needs to be taken.  Holding onto hope that something would change in the employee (unlikely) or that the manager would change their assessment (equally unlikely).

I then asked myself if I'd ever concluded someone was unable to handle the job, and subsequently changed my mind.  The answer was no.  In fact, I soon realized that once the first hints started coming -- somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 years before action would normally be taken, Ihad never seen a reversal.

Never.  Not once.

I also saw that the rationalizations I was using to justify my delays, when examined in 20/20 hindsight, were never valid.  Never was it better to live with poor performance just because I didn't want to take the time to search for a replacement.  The mismatched employee never pulled off the project they were assigned, so worrying about changing horses in midstream was unnecessary.  And the other employees always wondered what had taken me so long once I finally did act.

Delays were just my way (and, apparently the way of most managers) of dealing with unpleasantness and doubts.

After that, I adopted a new credo -- as soon as I recognize the first hints of problems, take action.  Don't wait for certainty.  Don't rationalize and delay.

I've never regretted it.

I've still slipped up a time or two, but in hindsight, the credo would have been valid if I hadn't.  And I might have stubbornly disagreed with the assessment of some of my bosses, holding onto employees they thought should go -- undoubtedly to my own detriment.  But I've tried to stay true to my credo.

The time to pull the plug on an employee is simple to identify.  It is the first time you find yourself asking:  "Am I going to have to take action on this person?"  Any time afterward is just delaying the inevitable.  9.2.


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Corporate Thriller novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES.  These are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of corporate management.