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Lead Your Team Managing

Dear Brittney: Should I Fire an Underperforming Employee?

Dear Brittney: Should I Fire an Underperforming Employee? Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Each Monday, BND staff writer Brittney M. Helmrich will answer your questions about careers, leadership, office life and social media in her advice column, "Dear Brittney." Got a professional problem you just can't figure out? Send your conundrums to bhelmrich@purch.com with the subject line "Dear Brittney" to have your questions featured.

Dear Brittney,

I have an underperforming employee. After multiple discussions and a semi-successful performance improvement plan, he's still not doing as well as employees in a similar position. Should I simply cut my losses and find a new hire, or should I continue to work with him on improving?

- Leader at a Loss

Dear Leader at a Loss,

The good news is, in this scenario, you've done everything right. It's good that you recognized that this employee was underperforming and took the time to discuss the issue — on several occasions — and to develop a performance improvement plan. The bad news is, you've done everything right, and the problem is still unresolved.

This is a tough situation, especially if you like this employee on a personal level. But if you're doing everything you can to help him and guide him and he's still not meeting expectations, you can't continue to let it slide. As much as I hate to say it — and as much as you probably hate to admit it, too — it sounds like it might be time to let him go and find someone more in line with the position's needs.

If you do plan to fire this employee, you should reach out to your company's human resources department to ask what the appropriate next steps are and to make sure there's a record of everything you've done to warn and work with the employee so far. This is really important, because if you do let him go and there's no proof that you had these discussions and developed this improvement plan with him, it can backfire for you legally. You don't want any employee to be able to turn around and say they've been fired unjustly, so make sure everything is in order first. [See Related Story: Time to Let Go? 15 Expert Tips for Firing Employees]

If you really feel like he can improve, however, maybe it's worth considering giving your employee one more chance — with a role that suits him better than the current one. In your discussions, have you asked him if he's feeling unhappy or too challenged by the tasks he's been assigned? If you have asked and these are not issues, then there's nothing you can really do other than cut your losses. But if you haven't asked about your employee's happiness and honest opinion on his current role, it might be time to have that discussion.

The issue here could be deeper. Maybe this employee would be a much better fit for the company if he joined another department. (To be clear, I mean a lateral move, not a promotion.) If you can find a place for him where he'd be happier and more productive, then you can hire someone else to take his current position. Of course, a lateral move may not be the solution. You'll have to talk to him, discuss the situation with HR and go from there.

If you take all of these steps and this employee still isn't working out, then it's not helping anyone to keep him around. You're responsible for making sure that everyone on your team is doing their best, and if he's not, then it's time to move on. In any case, good luck! Letting go of an employee isn't easy, and neither is finding a replacement or restructuring.

And regardless of how you proceed, you may want to take a step back and think about your hiring process. Sure, your current system could be great. Maybe this particular candidate just missed the mark. But dealing with a problematic employee can serve as a reminder to consider what other kinds of questions you could ask in the interview process. There may be some questions you can add or change in order to weed out candidates who may seem like a good fit but ultimately aren't (or maybe would be better suited for another department). It can't hurt to try, and it could lead to improvement in how you find new hires and prevent situations like this in the future.

- Brittney