A Practical Guide to Managing Bad Employees

Hal commented on last year’s post The Dead Simple Guide To Being a Good Manager and asked for some solutions to Step 1: Make It Terrible to be Bad.  There is one simple and effective technique that I’ve used (and seen used) multiple times and I can sum it up in 4 words:

Remove the hiding places

Bad employees continue to be bad because they are, somehow, able to convince themselves and/or others that they aren’t bad.  They hide in all the little places that we create when we aren’t careful, scurrying to their favorite spots when things aren’t going their way.  The bad news is that we, as managers and peers, create these hideouts when we aren’t clear and when we accept anything less than clarity. The good news is that you can start fixing things immediately by being clear and demanding clarity.  Here’s what I mean:

  1. Define success in unambiguous terms.  It’s unfair to fault someone for not being good if it’s not clear what “being good” means.
  2. Prefer to be clear over being right.  Ditch terms like “leverage”, “strategic”, “high-level” and other words that can be defined retroactively to support any outcome.  Instead, state things in terms that can be proven right or wrong, even if that means that you’ll be proven wrong sometimes.
  3. Be objective.  Measure according to the standards you’ve laid out.

One Last Chance In Private

Once you have clearly defined success and expectations, counsel your troubled employee in private.  This is a critical step, because this is where you can find out if the problem is actually yours and not theirs.  If you’ve done everything above then it should be obvious to both of you that your employee is falling short.  What you’re looking for is a sign that they understood what was expected and they simply didn’t deliver.  This private counsel is also where you can separate bad employees from immature ones.  The immature ones didn’t believe that it was important, the bad ones didn’t care that it was important.  If you find yourself counseling an immature employee, then you have a great opportunity to turn someone’s life around.  Spend a little extra time with them over the coming weeks and break things down to the smallest feasible chunks so you can provide plenty of feedback.  If they turnaround and become good then you’ve become not just a good manager, but a great one.  If they don’t turnaround, then chances are they acted immaturely when really they’re not going to get any better.

One Last Chance In Public

If private counsel didn’t work, then it’s time to go public.  Make it clear in a meeting, with other team members present, that the work (not the worker)  is unacceptable.  Once again, if you’ve defined things clearly then this should be obvious to everyone in the room.  It won’t be comfortable, but it’s important for a couple of reasons:

  1. It gives peer pressure/support a chance to work.  If the team rallies around the weakest link and helps him succeed, then you have another shot at turnaround.  If the team shuns him, then it’s not going to be a fun place for him to work.
  2. It sends a message to the team that you mean what you say.
  3. It can begin the self selection process where they figure out that they’re in the wrong place and relocate themselves elsewhere.  It is almost always easier to have someone voluntarily leave than to have to terminate them.

3 Strikes, You’re Out

After the previous last chances, failure to improve should result in termination.  When you terminate someone, they should never be surprised.  They can be pissed, they can even be shocked because they never thought you’d actually do it, but they should have seen it coming.  Everyone should see it coming.  Most should be relieved or appreciative.

To Be Clear

After mentioning clarity so many times, it seems appropriate to make a few things explicit:

  • Making things “terrible” is all about exposing bad work and making someone uncomfortable with their actions and choices.
  • This is not an excuse to be mean.
  • You need to be fair and objective.
  • There has to be an opportunity for turnaround.
  • There will be work and discomfort on your part.

Stick to your guns and prune respectfully and you’re on your way to being a good manager.  Go the extra mile and actually turn someone around and you’ll be great.  Either way, you and your team will be better off for it.



  1. Hal Diggs says:

    Thanks for documenting what I wish was the “default” in the workplace. I knew some of them, but you did a great job here.