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Ken Keller: The choice is to improve or remove weak employees

Posted: November 29, 2012 2:41 p.m.
Updated: November 29, 2012 2:41 p.m.

Not long ago, I was given a list of books by someone who had spent his vacation reading about the acquisition and retention of top talent.

The book I should have read first is “Talent IQ,” researched and written by Emmett C. Murphy. Murphy conducted a 10-year study of more than 100,000 leaders to learn how to identify top performers, improve or remove underachievers, and how to increase both productivity and profits.

There are two truths business leaders need to face. The first is there is a war for talent. Most companies seek “A” and “B” players, a reason hiring takes longer. Companies have the luxury of waiting to select the best and will not risk hiring someone not in the top tier.

The second is that considerably more is expected from those on the payroll today. Companies see payroll as an investment in the future, not recognition of past achievements or for tenure. It is truly a question of “What have you done for me lately?” “A” and “B” players are always ready to answer the question, and the rest can’t think of anything to say.

I’ll bet every organization has individuals that Emmett calls “on the bubble.” This refers to individual behavior on the job. It is defined as any behavior that can compromise the achievement of the company mission.

Individuals like this have been called “on board bombers” or “internal terrorists.” Most of the time, leaders ignore the behavior, hoping that it will simply go away. Not only does the behavior not go away, it gets progressively worse.

Other employees see this behavior not being addressed, and two things happen. First, it undermines the morale of high performers; they will leave for other organizations. Second, other employees may adopt the behavior, adding to the list of underperformers.

There are consequences for any company that carries poor performers. Emmett suggests that one way to determine the level of infection is to ask high performers how much they must compensate for or carry the poor performers.

Another way to assess the level of infection is to conduct an informal survey of your own top performers. Simply ask them to identify the top three challenges or opportunities facing them in their jobs. Emmett says that “if compensation for poor performers or the results of their work” comes up more than 30 percent of the time, your company is in trouble.

Underperformers typically go through five stages: fence-sitting, avoidance, hostility, contempt and irresponsibility. The path for this behavior ends to what Emmitt calls “professional suicide.”

How can you turn someone around? It requires courage, and it requires action. In Emmitt’s own career, he was taken to lunch by his mentor who said to him, “Your recent actions? Stop it. You are a much better person than your behavior suggests.” Emmitt did and was forever grateful.

Telling someone he or she can improve is a deeply caring activity and a sign of true responsibility. The problem is, the leaders that need to act this way often run from it.

When do you make the decision to release someone for a new assignment in another company?

The answer when you no longer have a positive expectation that an individual will be a contributor to your company. This is not a sudden decision; the person has left a trail of evidence that clearly demonstrates it is time for him or her to move on.

The decision comes down to risk: the impact to customers, to colleagues, to shareholders — the ones who will carry the load if the person continues to stay on the payroll.

Ken Keller is CEO of STAR Business Consulting Inc., a company that works with small and midsize business owners to grow top line revenue. He can be reached at Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.



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