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Putting my horses out to pasture

How I push poor performers out the door

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Some employees can’t maintain their excellence over time. Once-driven designers or technicians burn out. Supervisors who used to have wonderful people skills now barely control their cynicism. Executives get fat and happy.

I may like these folks personally. But I can’t afford to keep mediocre performers. If anyone coasts, it brings down the whole place. So I need to convince them it’s time for a change. That means either a reassignment or the boot.

Timing is everything

Part of my job is to help fading employees realize it’s in their best interest to take new jobs. The more authority people have, the harder it is for them to see the need for a change. Senior managers rarely decide, “I owe it to this company to step down.” When you taste big money and big power, it’s against human nature to give it up.

I approach the issue delicately. I may ask, “What do you think of your job?” and let them talk. We can both usually tell if they’re feeding me the party line (“This is such an exciting time,” “It’s going to be a great year,” etc.).

I try not to come right out and say “You’re outta here.” Through conversation, I poke and prod and get them to admit they’re not happy or that there’s another job or career they secretly covet.

We talk away from the office. Friday afternoon walks seem to work well. I don’t treat it like a performance review, scanning the person’s file and pointing out a laundry list of performance issues. I look these individuals in the eyes and tell them we both want them to have challenging and engaging work.

Relive ancient history

To broach the topic, I might reflect on the employee’s glorious past. I might recall how he built a branch office into a success years ago or spearheaded a project that’s still paying dividends.

That gets us both smiling. Then I’ll stop talking about the past and bring up the current situation. I might say, “I’m a big believer in working at a job a few years and then rotating out to get a fresh start” or “You’ve made great contributions. The question is what changes we need now so that you can make some more.”

Dangle incentives

The only way I can persuade someone to give up a nice power base is to provide an appealing, face-saving alternative. If I’m pitching an internal transfer, that means salvaging their reputation within the company so they won’t sulk. If I want them to leave for good, I may offer an unusually generous severance package.

Some advice: Don’t over-rehearse what you’ll say or what incentives you’ll offer. Just talk. And listen. Separate the short-term need for a change with long-term career opportunities. Above all, customize your incentives so that employees know you want them to succeed—again—in another role.

 “Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.

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