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When it comes to bad workers, should you fix them or fire them?

When it comes to bad workers, should you fix them or fire them? - VEGAS INC

The administrative assistant spent about as much time hanging around the water cooler complaining about her job and the workplace as she did half-heartedly completing her assigned duties.

“I wish they’d fire me so I can sit home and collect unemployment,” time and again she told co-workers, many of whom were fed up with her not pulling her weight.

It took less than two weeks for the company’s new human resources director, Mary Beth Hartleb, to conclude that, as employees go, the woman was broken and could not be fixed.

“She was thrilled to get her severance package,” said Hartleb, a 30-year veteran in the field that used to be called personnel. “And, despite having to pay her more than we wanted to, the company benefited from her departure because soon after she left, office morale greatly improved, as did worker productivity.”

Perhaps most shocking about that story is that the secretary in question had lasted 10 years in that job. She survived a fistful of frustrated supervisors before anyone did anything to stem the toxicity she was spreading through her department.

“Unfortunately, many employers do not document each incident (of poor employee productivity or misconduct), as was the case here,” said Hartleb, owner of Prism Global Management Group LLC of Henderson, which runs human resources operations for about 30 companies that collectively employ more than 5,000 people.

“If a fired employee appeals, the first thing (the arbitrator) wants to look at is the employee’s file for documented evidence of long-term problems. Companies that don’t document incidents have a lot tougher time defending themselves” against wrongful termination lawsuits.

Knowing this, Hartleb said, many companies decide it’s easier to shrug and tolerate underproductive employees.

But as experienced as Hartleb is at letting underproductive employees go, she is more passionate about turning them around, identifying their previously untapped skills and making them productive and integral cogs in the sometimes complicated machinery that is the workplace.

Indeed, bosses in Las Vegas and throughout the United States struggle every day with the question: “Should we fix ’em or fire ’em?”

Steven J. Shaer of Miami has spent much of his work life as a management trainer for law firms and other professional offices, often giving advice as to when underproductive employees should be given a second chance and when they should be told to hit the bricks.

“It is amazing how many people are terrible at their jobs yet are absolutely shocked when they get fired,” said Shaer, who wrote the 2013 book, “Fix Them or Fire Them: Managing, Evaluating and Terminating Underperforming Employees.”

Shaer, who once fired a receptionist primarily because she refused to memorize and recite a simple one-sentence company telephone greeting, said problems often begin with managers who, at the time of hiring, “do not establish clear measurements of performance criteria” by which the worker will be judged.

Cynthia M. Dobek, president of the Southern Nevada Human Resources Association, the Las Vegas chapter of the national professional group Society of Human Resource Management, said a way for companies to give problem employees one last chance to save their jobs is to implement a “performance improvement plan,” or, in HR jargon, a PIP.

The PIP involves the supervisor, troubled employee and human resources director all contributing toward the resetting of seemingly attainable goals that the employee must meet in a timely manner or be fired, Dobek said.

“Within 30 days, the employee is expected to perform the very basic fundamental job duties as they relate to his original job description,” said Dobek, the human resources director for more than 300 employees of the Sun City Summerlin Community Association.

If the employee survives that first round, he goes to a 60-day evaluation where he is expected to meet more specific criteria, Dobek said.

The final phase of the PIP, should the improving worker make it that far, is a 90-day stretch that “sets added goals that will lead the employee on a road map to success,” Dobek said. “The whole purpose of the PIP is to make the employee come to the realization that he must become more engaged in his job.”

Once an employee has successfully negotiated the 30-, 60- and 90-day PIP hurdles, his work is scrutinized in his annual review, thus a worker who truly wants to keep his job has to constantly improve his skills and not slip back into old, bad habits


Hartleb, who provides HR services for Three Square Food Bank, Neon Museum, Sunrise Children’s Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and others, said the need to give employees a second chance would not be as necessary if employers practiced good management procedures, starting with recruiting.

“Qualities like certain skills or a passion for the type of work that is being offered should be identified before an employee is hired,” Hartleb said. “The employer has to determine if the applicant has a good work ethic. Things like potential laziness and a bad attitude should be vetted in the interview to avoid a toxic workplace.”

Still, Hartleb said an underproductive worker can become a superstar in the workplace: “Sometimes it is as simple as trying that person in another role where they may wind up excelling.”

But author Shaer says employers should ask themselves: “Is it worth putting in the time and effort to turn an underproductive worker into just an adequate employee or cut losses, fire that substandard worker and go out and find a superstar to take his place?”

Dobek, Hartleb and Shaer agree, however, that managers with quick triggers are not necessarily serving their companies’ best interests.

“It takes a new worker months of training to get up to the level of performance the company expects of him,” Shaer said. “If you are constantly firing and hiring people, you are constantly starting the process over and over at step one and not moving the company forward.”

But such employer short-sightedness by no means gives bad workers license to constantly screw up, goof off or otherwise slow down production.

“Some employers fire too much, others not at all,” Shaer said. “Sometimes, employers have to bite the bullet and set an example (by firing inadequate workers).

“If you do not get rid of those who other workers know are not pulling their weight, you set a bad example that reflects poorly on you as a manager. And that only encourages other employees not to perform to their potential.”

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Good advice overall in this article. (Lots of HR 101.) Except at the very beginning. No need to give severance when terminating someone for performance reasons. Severance should be a helping hand for those losing their job through no fault of their own, ie. reduction in force layoffs.


The problem is that this example was just way too easy: non-core employee who BOTH did not perform job duties AND had a shitty attitude that was infecting others. Plus she was eager to be terminated! You're rarely gonna get a situation that clear, and it makes me wonder why no one had the gumption to terminate her before. No one can consider themselves a manager until they've had to deal with cases far less clear-cut than this one.

In terms of severance: in Silicon Valley it generally has nothing to do with fault either way. I've only been offered severance to reduce risk to the company, generally in return for a release of claims or some kind of non-compete (which is not super legal in this state but...).

More challenging than the bad performer is the okay performer who is holding the team back because s/he is good but not good enough.

Such people are usually well intentioned and liked, making it particularly difficult to terminate employment. 

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