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A number of years ago, I wasn't as passionate about my job as I currently am, so I know that for someone to develop the necessary degree of passion, enthusiasm, and work ethic to perform really well, it can be a long journey.

For that reason, I tend to have the attitude that it's too frustrating and not worthwhile to try to manage the performance of someone non-junior who (for example) regularly isn't even working for the full work day, or shows a clear lack of focus or care. I've recently worked mainly in startup and disruptive businesses, which tend to have a less forgiving culture and expectation of high level of engagement.

The 'soft' approach to dealing with underperformance is well described in the following articles, and whilst this type of approach sounds attractive (and in the past I would be in favour of this), I know that in my own case, underperforming was really a sign that I simply wasn't excited or hard working enough and needed to move on or really address my underlying attitude over an extended period of time.

https://blog.boomr.com/employee-isnt-working-hard-enough/ https://inside.6q.io/15-effective-ways-to-deal-with-an-underperforming-employee/

Imagine if a company simply lets go of some employees who aren't really performing well enough, without attempting to genuinely manage performance. It can create some disruption and leave skill gaps and some short term struggle, but it can also put an end to a business tolerating underperformance and bringing other team members down. What can be other trade-offs between a 'non performance management' versus a 'supportive performance management' approach. I'd be very interested in any objective empirical evidence to suggest the pros/cons each approach.

  • Hey Chris welcome to TWP. Please take the tour and read the help center to start to get to know your way better around here, and know what topics are on-topic and which you should avoid. – DarkCygnus Oct 14 at 5:00
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    "Is there evidence to suggest that this approach is likely to be effective" - Would you mind telling us what is your definition of "effective"? Effective for whom and in which terms? My perception is that a non-small number of companies and industries take this approach (let go of under-performers) without even bothering to manage performance. – DarkCygnus Oct 14 at 5:01
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    I see your update. I suggested checking the help center in the hopes that you then were able to edit your question into something more answerable and that has a goal. To be honest, asking for "is there evidence that supports or correlates X" is basically asking us to point you to a paper or research on the topic (something Google-able), and is something that lacks a goal or problem that we can help you with or help you solve. On TWP many answers are based on experience and professional criteria, so asking to point you to physical evidence I feel is a bit off-topic. – DarkCygnus Oct 14 at 5:25
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    It's already late here at my country, and was about to log out, but perhaps you could try to rephrase your post into something like: "What benefits does not bothering to manage performance and just letting go under-performers has for companies?"... or perhaps a bit more general "What could be the trade-offs between managing under-performers or just letting them go?"... those wording would be on-topic, answerable and with a goal we could help you with (without us having to carry out a research paper and calculate correlation coefficients just to post an answer here :o) ) Good luck – DarkCygnus Oct 14 at 5:28
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    Do keep in mind in a lot of countries, underperformance must be managed, and you just can't fire people. There are a range of factors at play, it's going to be incredibly difficult to quantify them. – Gregory Currie Oct 14 at 14:42
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For most managers, the important question is "would we be better off without this person?"

Someone who is working 50% as hard that everyone else is still doing some useful work and if you fire them, that work won't get done - or it'll only get done by sacrificing something else.

In theory you can recruit a replacement but that could take months, and months more before the replacement is sufficiently trained to surpass the person they replaced. So if the replacement is only a little better, it could take years to see a 'return on the investment'.

If they were doing very little of use, and using up a lot of other people's time, then the team would be better off without them. However I think that's fairly rare.

A logical strategy would be to recruit a new person and build spare capacity in the team, then fire the worst performer. However it's not easy to get approval for spare capacity, so most teams end up with some underperformers.

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There is plenty of history and opinions on this topic. Jack Welch of General Electric got fame (and controversy) for instantiating a "fire the bottom 10% each year" policy.

Some people think it's great while some people think it's stupid.

More nuanced discussions are here and here.

IMO it's up to the manager to figure out whether a poorly performing employee can be turned around or not. It all depends on the root cause. Skill gaps can easily be closed with training, work habit and attitude problems take more work, cultural and personality disconnects are often unsolvable.

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  • Those are really interesting articles but they don't mention that after 5 years of firing the bottom 10%, everyone left is above the average of the original group. – Robin Bennett Oct 16 at 8:11
  • another point : is it easy to find replacements? If you have a 100% employee, a 70% employee, and the work market is devoid of people with those skills, and it takes 5 years to train a replacement (I experienced that), the situation is very different than in a sector where immediate replacements are available in great numbers - or very quick to train. – gazzz0x2z Oct 16 at 8:18
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What could be the trade-offs between managing under-performers or just letting them go?

First of all, it is not at all clear (generally speaking) what under-performers are. The first class of under-performers that I see is the fresh graduates, starting their first job. Should companies not even hire beginners / juniors? Economy would collapse in just a few years (or less).

The point I want to make above is that deciding without understanding the root cause can cause more trouble than benefit.

The best trade-off (the way I see it) is to look into each situation individually, and make the right decision. What applies to one person, will probably not apply to another. If you assume without judgment that all people are the same, you will hit some hard wall, sooner or later.


Just remember the imagined dialogue:

-- What if we train our employees and then they leave?

-- But what if we do not train our employees and they stay?

The conclusion: on average, people are always subject to improvement. It is the genius of the company to make that happen.

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  • thanks and +1, although I would argue that it's primarily the responsibility of the individual to improve themselves. If you can add any advice for how the approach may differ for someone non-junior vs someone more junior, that would be very valuable – Chris Halcrow Oct 14 at 6:07
  • actually, it is a fact that nobody can improve somebody else. One can only help, or motivate, someone else to improve. So "it's primarily the responsibility of the individual to improve themselves" is kind of ambiguous. Regarding approach: it is so dependent on the situation, and on the individual, that not generic rule can be built. It can be as simple as "move the person near the window", or give a person one extra $ to the salary, because it makes him happy to have $12345 salary instead of $12344. But things can get very complicated. To improve things, companies even fire CEO's. – virolino Oct 14 at 6:16
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    Underperformers are those that preform under expectations. Graduates have different expectations placed upon them. – Gregory Currie Oct 14 at 14:38
  • -1 for the whole rant about new graduates. Juniors, fresh Graduates have different expectations. If they lack basic skills and one is AWFUL compared to what you expect - THAT is an underperformier. Being a new graduate makes you a junior. VERY junior. You also get PAID AS SUCH. – TomTom Oct 14 at 16:35
  • I'll add to the comment that not hiring graduates would not ruin the economy. When no-one would hire me out of University, I responded by starting my own business. Business founding is the primary source of new economic development. – Chris Halcrow Oct 14 at 21:34
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The most obvious trade-off is that you risk "scaring the horses" by simply bulleting under-performers, and being seen as an assassin.

The question is not merely whether you think (or some management metric determines) that a person is underperforming, but whether other workers think the target's performance falls far below the norm or that the target performs no useful function.

If other workers cannot be convinced that the target is embarrassingly incompetent or deserves to be sacked for some moral failing, then you risk creating stress, insecurity, competitive behaviours, and short-term mindsets, that will reduce the overall performance of the team and the firm and will often, paradoxically, have formerly the best and most loyal employees running for the hills.

A reason for this effect is because, as I learned when I went to school, we can't all be above average. In any setting and under any regime, there are always going to be people who are worse than the best. Often, if no natural and obvious criteria exists and the masses form much of a muchness, then spurious criteria will be devised to create exemplars, of whom others are deemed to fall somewhat short.

If workers sense that management have now set a course to make everyone above average and bullet the rest, they have every reason to be worried that irrational brutality has set in and their days are numbered until the machine comes for them.

Another problem is how management measure performance. In anything but the most routine, simplistic, and individualised work, the exact role and value of any team member is often a complex management judgment, if indeed it can be discerned at all at the individual level (rather than simply judging whether a team work well together and their combined output is acceptable). It's not unusual that firms substitute absurd individual metrics or sycophancy for good judgments about the performance of whole teams. Again, when this occurs, workers have every reason to worry that brutality has set in and the machine is coming for them.

So when "letting under-performers go", especially habitually, the trade-off for a firm is potentially being seen by existing and future workers as a short-term, insecure gig, where performance standards are either unreasonably high for mortals, or else capricious and irrational.

Having a few people around in a firm who clearly aren't great, can often be an important signal to the workforce that they work for a stable and consistently profitable company, and that their security of employment is not going to be in question under any reasonable circumstances. It is in those circumstances that workers are most likely to invest in the firm for the long-term and minimise investments (of time or mental energy) in burnishing their CVs at the expense of the employer.

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    Hmm. As a counterpoint, I've found that keeping people around that are significantly underperforming hurts team morale - they have a hard time with being held to a standard if they see someone else not being held to it, and they often don't like dealing with underperforming people, they want to work with people they can count on. Team morale is actually one of the key factors I use when deciding if it's time to cut someone or not. – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Oct 14 at 21:14
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    Excellent answer and counterpoint from mxyzplk - I've seen both of these aspects play out previously – Chris Halcrow Oct 14 at 21:39
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    @mxyzplk, I agree, but then you are describing a situation where the colleagues of the target want them gone, and I exactly said that it's crucial to have that consent. A thing to be wary about, though, is when whole teams become unreasonably competitive and intolerant - in such cases, the consent for dismissing underperformers exists, but that's because the whole team are already afflicted by all the bad things I described (short-termism, insecurity, ruinous competition), and often the only "competent" colleague... (1/2) – Steve Oct 15 at 11:30
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    ...will be one who is just enough beneath average to be able to keep up with the others most of the time, but not good enough to threaten the established team, and over time these teams will become highly inferior and inefficient (which was the very thing management were trying to drive out in the first place). When seemingly better-than-average new entrants are added to the team, you'll quickly find morale plummets and the new entrant is deemed incompetent or disruptive, as the existing team reacts to secure themselves against the new threat of a "better" worker injected by management. (2/2) – Steve Oct 15 at 11:37
  • This is very domain-dependant. Though, most people browsing this place are working in highly complex jobs, with a great importance of teamwork, and where motivation is a key point. Which means your answer is valid for most readers over there. – gazzz0x2z Oct 16 at 8:22

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