It doesn’t matter if someone in your family is lazy, argumentative, or a drug addict. They’re still family. They’re still welcome to come over for Sunday dinner. You won’t enable them, but you’ll accept them and love them unconditionally.

It’s become common for companies to make statements like “at XYZ Inc. we’re family!” While this statement is always disingenuous, perhaps such slogans might help managers remember to have some empathy and compassion for staff. As counselors, we come ready-made with lots of empathy and compassion; sometimes to our own detriment. An employee presents a pile of interpersonal and professional problems, and instead of termination we ponder “How can we work with what we have here? We have to make it work, right? After all, we’re family!”

Managing a Professional Sports Team

Perhaps a better paradigm than a family is to view our staff as a professional sports team. There’s no shortage of admiration, respect, or closeness among players and coaches on a professional team. However, when it comes to who stays, only those with consistent excellent performance (and who come to practice, get along with others, and play by the rules) make the cut.

Managing a professional sports team is a hard job. I’m guessing. And I’m guessing that one of the hardest things a coach does is something they have to do often; decide who will, and who won’t, stay on the team. It’s never fun to let an employee go. It’s never what you want. But handling difficult personnel issues is part of the job, and it’s important for your customers, clients, and even your other team members that this part of the job is done well. Below are a few tips, learned from painful experiences over the years.

1) Don’t Get Too Busy to Manage

Managers need to set clear performance objectives, and then measure performance against those objectives. This isn’t always fast or easy. If you’re hiring for a technical role it could take a lot of research before you’ll understand how to identify and measure reasonable performance expectations. Then, it will take more time ongoing to track performance.

When a manager has too much on her plate, she might lose track of a team member’s performance. She might not be able to tell if a team member (say a sales person, recruiter, biller, or even counselor) is excellent, or incompetent.

Experience: In 2008, my biller would blame the insurance company for every claim that wasn’t paid, and there were plenty. I accepted these excuses because I didn’t know enough about billing to review her performance against a reasonable standard.

2) Don’t Avoid Confrontation

Have candor. If someone is underperforming, sit down and talk with them about it.

With the best team members, the smallest amount of redirection gets them back on track. Others might refuse to accept a review that suggests they’re performance is anything less than ideal. You present a performance objective they missed, and they have excuses ready to go. The two most common excuses are:

  1. “I’ve been too busy,” and
  2. “Someone did (or didn’t do) something that prevented me from completing my objective.”

These are valid excuses, but both need to be brought up to a supervisor early, as soon as a team member starts falling behind. It’s not acceptable to use these excuses only after one has missed a deadline.

3) Don’t Wait for a Miracle

We’ve all heard of the sunk cost fallacy, but none of us wants to think we’re subject to it ourselves. Here’s how it can look with employees.

A team member has been nothing but problems, but he’s also working on a big project, or a big sale. Every time the project is delayed, and it’s been delayed more than once, you’re told that it’s in the home stretch. So you give him more time, and then more, and then more than you ever wanted to give, but you’re really close now to this great new website or record-breaking sale!

You’re eating a wish sandwich. Cut your losses! Your problem employee isn’t on the verge of becoming a superstar.

4) Don’t Believe the Hype

You might have someone in your company for whom every task he works on turns out to be a catastrophe, “But don’t worry boss” he’ll say, “I’ll on top of it” and with lots of fanfare he gets the task done. The employee shows you once again how much you need him on the team to handle these crises.

This person, almost every time, is the source of the drama. The right person in a role isn’t saving you from daily disasters, she’s calmly conducting business as usual. Clark Kent is better than Superman.

5) Don’t Downplay Interpersonal Problems

Ignoring negative interpersonal relationships; this is one of those things that most managers think they’d never do, until they do. It happens slowly—a team member has interpersonal conflict with another team member. And then another. And then another. You ignore it as office gossip, while office culture and employee morale slowly degrades.

6) Don’t Take Too Long

Have you ever seen a “dead man walking?” It’s when everyone knows a person is going to either quit or get fired, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a distraction, and it’s difficult for the team as they attempt to navigate around this unresolved situation.

You’ll never regret letting someone go too soon, but you will always regret letting someone stay too long. A team member with poor performance; the longer they stay on, the more the likelihood they’ll do something that harms a customer, client, or the business. Also, when they leave—and you finally take a closer look at what they’ve been hiding—you’ll learn just how poorly they were doing.

Experience: I let a team member go only to realize he had just a few days before (without authorization) signed a contract committing the company to an expensive service we didn’t want or need.

A Thriving Team

Cutting ties with an employee is a last resort. That said, keeping someone on board who’s a bad fit harms culture, hurts morale, lowers service quality, and creates stress. When you handle these situations with fairness for everyone in mind, the team members who remain know they’re part of a better, stronger, dedicated team.

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