Your employees directly affect the success of your business. They work with your clients, sell your products and engage in frontline, day-to-day operations. Some employees are a pleasure to manage, and others—well, not so much. Working with an exemplary employee who is productive, independent, motivated and delightful is every manager’s dream. On the flip side, some employees are just bad hires and the decision to let them go is straightforward. Unfortunately, staff management isn’t that black and white.

At times, you will have a “marginal” employee, someone who meets minimal expectations on a daily basis, but that’s about it. Maybe this employee started strong, but the quality of his work has slowly diminished. His lack of motivation and dismal demeanor have reduced productivity and elicited less than stellar reviews from members. He is no longer a valuable asset to your team, and although you’ve communicated your concerns, he continues to struggle. So what’s your next move? Do you motivate or terminate?

Deciding whether to retain or release an employee who is underperforming is challenging. Each situation is unique and requires careful consideration. To reach a sensible and professional decision, ask yourself the following key questions:

Why Did You Hire This Person?

Think about why you initially hired this employee. Did you feel her particular skill set or experience would be beneficial to the organization? Did a colleague highly recommend her? Did she fill a void on your team? Remind yourself why you felt this employee would be a good addition. If you realize she was originally a good hire, you may choose to motivate. If you no longer need her skill set or you feel you can find a suitable, stronger replacement, you may decide to terminate.

Can the Employee Meet Expectations?

“When taking steps to align individual performance with organizational needs, ask yourself if the employee has the aptitude to do the job,” advises Karen Knauf, life coach, career strategist and president of Aspired Performance, in Austin, Texas. “Consider if the situation can be remedied with retraining,” Knauf continues. “If there was already an attempt to retrain and the current role is still too difficult, then you have to determine if you can modify the job to fit the person or move this employee within the organization to a better-fitting role.”

Does the Employee Fit In With the Organization?

Ideally, all your employees will adhere to the organization’s core values, vision and mission. When staff members are on the same page, individuals become a team working in harmony toward a common goal. If you feel that the fit just isn’t right or the employee is causing tension within an otherwise strong team, it may be time to let go. Otherwise, give the employee the opportunity to succeed.

Is the Employee Willing to Contribute?

This is absolutely essential. If your employee isn’t open to suggestions, is reluctant to accept constructive criticism and has no desire to change, then your decision is simple. When an employee is motivated to be successful, you will most likely have something to work with. “When a situation is an issue of motivation, make sure the employee isn’t working against natural interests and strengths,” says Knauf. “As individuals, we gravitate toward our areas of strength and within these higher-performance areas, the work comes easier for us. We then expend less effort and are able to complete expected tasks quickly without losing quality.”

If you decide to retain a substandard employee and make an effort to boost job performance, following these steps can help to ensure improvement:

1. Use a behavior assessment tool. “A manager who wishes to retain a struggling employee may benefit from an assessment tool such as the Birkman Method Assessment (,” suggests Knauf. “[This method] illuminates an employee’s passions, behaviors, motivations and interests. Armed with this knowledge, both the employee and manager can allocate responsibilities based on the employee’s effective behaviors. This is a more positive approach than trying to make continuous improvements to an individual’s weaknesses. Although this method doesn’t measure ability or aptitude, it can predict where an employee can contribute most effectively to organizational or team goals.”

2. Set well-defined performance goals. If you want clear expectations for both manager and employee, you must create performance goals. Once both short- and long-terms goals are defined and documented, you can establish a reevaluation schedule to discuss progress and make sure the employee is on the right track. Remember to set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

3. Consider appointing a mentor. Everyone needs a coach from time to time. Choose a trusted, reliable staff member to mentor the struggling employee. Mentors can provide insight, direction, encouragement, support and knowledge. The employee may feel more comfortable working with a peer as opposed to a supervisor.

4. Communicate positive changes. When the employee is improving, reward her with a verbal “Good job,” a continuing education course or an additional client referral. A small gesture of appreciation can go a long way.

You may ultimately feel that firing the employee is the best decision. The conversation will no doubt be difficult for both parties. Stay professional, stick to the facts, and remember that this is the right move for your business and most likely for the employee as well.

“If at all possible, as a part of a severance package provide the departing employee with an outplacement service that includes resumé writing, interview preparation, assessment tools, individual coaching, and job search and negotiation strategies,” recommends Knauf. “Using an outplacement service can be positively life- and career-changing for that employee.” In addition, research state labor laws and/or consult an attorney regarding proper termination procedures.

Stephanie Vlach, MS

Stephanie Vlach, MS, is a certified fitness professional with 17 years of experience. She has held numerous roles and positions within the industry. Currently, she is a group exercise instructor and freelance writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at [email protected]

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