Saving “Useless” Teddy

Everyone agreed. Teddy had to go. In the six months that he had worked for us, he hadn’t accomplished a single one of his half-dozen primary goals. Not only had he failed at his objectives, he was disruptive at meetings and rude in corporate correspondence. I volunteered to be the hatchet man and I was all set to do the bloody deed. But then, an hour before my scheduled “Can I see you for a minute?” meeting with Teddy, Judy called me up. “I know this sounds crazy,” she said. “But I think Teddy might be a good editor for my new journal.” “You know . . . it doesn’t sound crazy at all,” I said, surprised at my own reaction. “I wonder what the other division heads will think.” I made a few quick calls.

Nobody liked the idea, but nobody vetoed it either. When Teddy came into the office, I gave him a very different speech than the one I had planned. He left 10 minutes later, pumped up and eager to get to work on something that turned him on. Six years later, Teddy is running his own division. Failing to cull bad workers from your team cheats the good people who must take up the slack and threatens to degrade your products and customer service. But sending someone out into the cold — even though you know he’s bad for your business — isn’t an easy task.

It’s especially difficult if the person has many redeeming qualities. So before you screw up your courage and give the boot to that under-performing employee (someone you really like), you might want to consider a few options that could be better for you as well as him. Here are some of the things I’ve done, with varying levels of success: Find another position for him. The problem might be that you just can’t work with the guy. Maybe he doesn’t have your business ethics or just rubs you the wrong way.

Such relationships are almost always doomed. You can try to find a way to work together, but chances are you’ll both keep falling back into your bad habits and things will go sour again. In such situations, it may be possible to “outplace” him — either to a division of your company that’s run by someone else or to another company. I’ve done this about a dozen times in my career, but only with people I acknowledged as being bright and hardworking — even if I couldn’t stand them.

About half of them ended up annoying the hell out of the people I passed them on to. But the other half got on very well. Three that I can think of right now went on to be very successful in their new venues. Give him an entirely different job. You hired him to run and improve your sophisticated database-management system, only to find that he has trouble keeping his laptop from crashing. The man is clearly not qualified for the job. He shouldn’t have applied for it, and you shouldn’t have hired him. But you like him — and he really was trying.

In a case such as this, you might want to try to figure out if there’s something else that he can do well. Teddy is just one example of the many employees I’ve “reclassified” over the years. Few of them had the success that Teddy had, but many settled in nicely in their new roles. Many, too, did not work out. Of those that failed, about half of them failed immediately and definitively while the other half of them were reclassified a second time and failed then. Transferring troublesome workers is a risky and sometimes costly solution. The amount of damage such employees can cause is extended each time you replant them.

That said, I have also had a good deal of success with this — especially when I’ve spent some time analyzing the employee’s strengths and weaknesses and have been able to find something that I was pretty sure he could excel at. Rewrite his job description. You can sometimes resuscitate a flagging employee by revising his duties. Management expert Dr. John C. Maxwell gives a good example of the way this technique can be successfully implemented: During the 2000 baseball season, John Smoltz, star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, had a ligament replaced in his elbow because his pitching arm was getting worse and worse.

After sitting out for a year, he resumed his role as a starting pitcher. But then, after a few games, his arm began bothering him again. When they realized what was happening, his coaches switched his role from starter to relief pitcher. Smoltz objected at first but soon discovered that by throwing hard for only one or two innings a game, he was doing a much better job than he did when he tried to go for six or seven innings every three or four games.

As a result, in 2002, in his role as closer, he set a National League record with 55 saves. When you have an underachieving employee who, for some very good reason, you believe is worth saving, these techniques are worth a try. But most of the time, it’s not worth your time — especially if the person is: a three-time loser (You gave him three chances, and he blew them all.) a drunk or druggie someone who is having a negative effect on the entire organization People like these need to be dispatched swiftly and surely.