What to do when people are bad at their job

The first thing is to tell them. 

People miss this one simple step more often than you would imagine. 

The test

Most managers believe that they are telling their employees what the problems are. 

The test happens when you fire that employee: if the employee is surprised the problem was the manager, not the employee. 

We often think we are giving a clear message and making a specific request when the reality is quite different. And it happens in particular with bad news. Bad news makes everyone uncomfortable so we tend to be even more tentative and distant with what we are saying. 

The result is that employees do not get clear messages. They may even pick up on the fact that you are not happy, but without specific comments and expectations, there is nothing they can do to improve. 

The feedback

You’ve heard me say it once or twice on this blog before: be specific. 

Remember first of all that you hired this employee for a reason. Start there: what is it you hope to see in this person’s performance. 

Giving praise

There are two key ways to give praise. 

Praise their effort. Acknowledge where the person has put in hard work. It might be in a task, or learning, or in trying to change, or anything else. 

Praise the behavior you want to see. This is where you start to encourage your people in the right direction. What is it you wish this person did differently? Praise that behavior, even if it is not fully there yet. You get more of what you encourage in somebody, so encourage the right thing. 

Giving criticism

It doesn’t always work: sometimes you just have to call something out. 

Focus on the problem: the problem is not the action or lack thereof. The problem is the incorrect outcome. To use a banal example: if an employee answered the phone incorrectly, don’t spend all your time talking about what they said on the phone. Instead, talk to them about how that incorrect message caused harm – maybe it gave the wrong information, maybe it upset a client, … 

Help the employee understand the problem outcome so they can readjust accordingly. It’s not about “say these words on the phone”, but rather about “keep clients happy”. Put some trust in your people to get that right. 

The end

If you can’t put that trust in your employees, well that is your sign: you have the wrong person in the role. 

Ask yourself: would this person be surprised if they were fired? If the answer is yes, go back to the top of the post and start over. 

Are your employees working towards your goals, or just checking things off a list?

Let’s get them engaged and productive with a full management process plan


  1. Wendy L. Kinney on August 19, 2020 at 11:18 am

    Ah – I like this – if the employee was surprised, it was my lack of management communication. Thank you.

    • Rebecca on August 19, 2020 at 11:42 am

      It’s a good (and simple) accountability test.