More than a few times during my years as a practicing manager, I felt compelled to explain the WORK CONTRACT to an underperforming subordinate. In simple English the work contract is as follows: YOU WORK, WE PAY; YOU DON’T WORK, WE DON’T PAY. Of course this sounds simple and very straight forward but in the everyday world of work where we’re talking about human beings, few things are ever simple and straight forward.
For almost every job you supervise as a manager, there is a generally accepted standard for acceptable work performance. These standards are usually a combination of hour and location requirements, quantity and quality of output, collaborative and teamwork demands, and demeanor on the job, especially where it relates to customer and client contact.
Most subordinates will meet these standards, some exceeding them spectacularly and some who just manage to perform slightly above the acceptable bar. A few employees will occasionally be so grossly incompetent, dishonest, or destructive that they almost fire themselves. But what do you do with those subordinates whose performance is routinely substandard — below the acceptable bar –even after you have coached, counseled, advised, trained, and warned them of the consequences of a failure to improve. These are the subordinates, for whatever reason, that are demonstrably not up to the job.
Writer Jay Goltz of NYTimes.com (excerpted in “THE WEEK”, February 25, 2011, P. 48) describes them as employees that are perhaps “not that bad but they’re just not good. They make too many mistakes, work poorly with others, waste time, and duck responsibility”. These are the folks, argues Goltz, that most managers “would probably admit, if pressed, that they’d feel relief if such employees were to quit tomorrow”.
The text-book answer concerning what to do, of course, is that you remove the above chronically sub-standard subordinates from your workplace, and the really good organizations and the very best managers do just that But the real work-world reality in far too many organizations is that this fails to happen far too often. Firing people, removing them from the workplace, is an unpleasant, often difficult task. And many managers avoid it like the plague no matter how obvious the mismatch between job, standards, and the employee’s performance might be.
I believe it helps a manager to focus on the appropriate course of action when faced with chronic subordinate underperformance, if he or she takes two critical issues to heart.
The first is the “work contract”; you must work for your pay and by work we don’t just mean showing up, being there, or putting in your hours. The movie “Office Space” was a hilarious comedy about bad bosses, tolerance of laziness and incompetence, and mindless bureaucracy, not a blue print on how to run a successful business or organization.
By work I mean that an employee must regularly meet all the reasonable standards for an acceptable level of performance in a given job. The subordinate should know and understand these standards and the standards should consist of variables that are demonstrably observable and measurable in some way. All managers have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that their organization spends its salary and benefit dollars wisely. Continuing to compensate chronically substandard performance is wasting the organization’s money, bad management, and grounds for a critical conversation with the offending managers involved.
The second critical issue worth considering is the impact substandard performers generally have on those around them. In Jay Goltz’s words, “is it nice to force good employees to work with people who can’t pull their weight? Is it fair to your customers?
Substandard performers are a drag on teamwork, collaboration, morale, and potentially the overall quality of a unit’s output and production. They force others to pick up the slack, work harder, and sometimes ignore parts of their own work responsibilities. More than one substandard performer in your organization and the consequences multiply considerably. If you believe your organization is performing at its peak with substandard employees on board, you are kidding yourself.
The best managers hate wasting money and they are keen to address matters that undermine the overall effectiveness of their organization; chronic substandard performers are certainly high on their list. The best managers understand the bargain implicit in the work contract and take seriously their responsibility to ensure that this bargain is satisfactorily fulfilled.