Terminating someone’s employment is almost always an emotional event. Granted, sometimes that emotion is relief or even joy when you’ve finally gotten rid of that employee who is a royal pain. Some employees are non-productive, destructive morale destroyers, and no one likes them. Once you’ve gotten rid of them, you breathe a big sigh of relief. But what do you do when the person is not like that? What do you do if they are likable and popular? The problem is that for some reason they are not producing the way you expected them to produce. You don’t want to fire them, but what can you do?
Unfortunately, this is a far-too-common phenomenon, and it gets employers in trouble far too often with claims of favoritism, or even worse, discrimination from the less likable people. Here are some steps that you can take to make this situation more workable.

Hire Carefully

I usually tell my clients, students, and readers to “hire slow, but fire fast.” What I mean by this is that you need to take your time and hire carefully, making sure you are making the correct decision. Then, if you realize that the person is not the right match for the job, you shouldn’t linger on the decision. You need to get it done and get on with your life and let them get on with theirs.

What do I mean by “hire carefully”? First, it means doing your homework. You need to understand the job by having formulated a carefully crafted job description. You should know what skill set is necessary for someone to be successful in that job, as well as the “fit” it takes to do that job and to be a part of the company. “Fit” in this instance doesn’t mean that they are of a certain race or gender or religion, which is irrelevant and would actually be illegal. It means that the individual has the job habits and approaches to tasks and people that are necessary to be successful in the job. Too many employers do not do this kind of careful evaluation of a job before they hire someone. From this evaluation, a behavioral interview can be conducted that will allow you to ask the questions that will determine if the candidate matches your needs.

Once you understand what is necessary for the job, then you can begin the careful evaluation of candidates. A comprehensive review of each resume will help you identify if the person has the basic requirements of knowledge, education, and experience to be able to perform well in the position. If they pass this evaluation, they can move on to the interview phase.

The interview in this process should be of a behavioral nature. You want to know what the candidates have done, how they have done it, and how they’ve interacted with people, processes, and problems. Ask about past situations that are similar to what they will encounter in the job. In a behavioral interview, you would not ask a question that starts with “What would you do?” Rather, you should start with “Tell me about a time when…”

Careful companies also employ an assessment process that includes impartial testing to help make decisions on candidates. The profile current employees so they know what makes them successful, and they base their assessments on those skills. These kinds of tests are a very good predictor of someone’s potential success in a specific job.

If someone makes it through this level of selection, you can be reasonably assured that the new employee will be able to perform the job and fit into the department and the company. But what happens if they don’t?

What if they are not working out?

You can’t always tell right away that someone is not going to work out. Generally, there is a learning curve with each job, and sometimes these curves can last a while. Let’s assume, however, that the employee has now had enough time to adequately learn the job, but he or she is not performing as expected. What do you do?

There are a number of areas that should be explored to answer this question. First, you should ask yourself, “Did we miss a critical component in this person’s background?” What skill is missing that you thought they had? Is it a matter of the person not having enough of a specific skill, or does he or she just not have it at all? The answer to this question may determine the course of action you take.

If the skill is present, yet the person is not working out well, then there are other components you need to look at that may be affecting the working dynamics. There are several questions you should ask:

  • What are the interpersonal dynamics in the department?
  • Is there a conflict that is interfering with the person’s desire to perform?
  • Are they being harassed?
  • Have they been given adequate tools to perform well?
  • Is their poor performance due to inadequate systems or equipment?
  • Do they need additional training? Can you provide that training?
  • Is the manager the problem?
  • Is there a personal issue that is interfering?
  • Is there a medical issue?

There is any number of reasons why someone may not be performing at the level you originally anticipated. It is HR’s role, working in conjunction with the person’s manager, to determine what the issue is and see if the company can help work it out. In some cases, such as an ADA issue, the law requires that the company try to come up with a workable solution.

This kind of problem-solving can be time-consuming, but trying to make a current employee productive again is almost always better than hiring someone new, especially if the person is popular with other employees. The company’s willingness to work with employees who are in job distress speaks volumes about the company and will be noticed by the other employees as well. The converse is also true.

Andreea Hrab

International HR Director for OSF Global Services, Andreea is a veteran recruiter who has seen them all. She developed HR recruiting strategies and retention programs that guarantees the success of the company. She is a people person and she handles very easy new relationships with new employees, but her most interesting challenge is to find the middle way between company’s best interests and employee’s needs. To learn more about Andreea contact her on LinkedIn.


  • Avatar Cindy M. says:

    Recently, a couple of very nice guys left our workplace, and that really affected the other people on the team. Their good mood changed and there was less laughter in the office. There appeared to be a kind of emotional gap, which is difficult to fill. How can a manager handle this situation?

  • Avatar Mary S. says:

    Every team has its own style of performing tasks and handling different problems. Good or bad, it is their way, and it should be productive if the team is still working. A new employee may have better skills in problem solving, but his or her influence can affect the established balance. So when hiring someone, it is good to pay attention to whether this person has qualifications that fit with the working environment. 

  • Avatar Lauren P. says:

    All new employees often make one and the same mistake. They want to finish their studies as soon as possible and get to the “real” work. They don’t learn about the environment they are in or about teamwork. Eventually it affects their performance, as unfamiliar things continually come up and divert attention from their tasks. 

  • Avatar Scott P. says:

    You can always turn the tables by actually communicating with the employee as a friend and assuring them that you are on their side. Thus, even if you eventually fire this employee, they will understand your decision and leave without holding a grudge.

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