When to Invest in Personnel

Great team members aren’t cheap. We invest time, energy and money to find them, to train them and to retain them through their personal and professional growth cycles and crises. We adjust schedules, projects and even goals to keep them happy. And often, after contorting organizational structures to a breaking point, we lose them anyway.

All of this means that once we have negotiated initial salary and benefits, we will need to have a way to calculate whether we should continue to invest in an employee or cut our losses and try again.

Economically there is solid evidence that once you’ve invested a year or so in a key individual you should do almost anything to keep them. But the real cost of continuing to maintain a problematic employee goes beyond the obvious economics. There is emotional effort, managerial time and organizational culture to consider. These factors create an economic cost or drag, but at some point it becomes important to name the downsides more specifically.

An emotional burden is above all other considerations an emotional burden. It does a disservice to the complex totality of sacrifices associated with the emotional drain of a problematic or underperforming individual to simply calculate them economically. The distractions, opportunities lost, relationships shortchanged, moments bungled, physical health insults accumulated and more that are associated with the continuing emotional effort to manage stress are serious threats to your business.

The importance of the damages caused by shifting attention from top producing employees to problematic ones cannot be overemphasized. It is common for job satisfaction to decrease in many others because a manager’s or leader’s focus has become fixated on problems of the one instead of the successes of the many.

Creative energy and the process of preparing for the changes that are a part of any field become sapped by the need to create solutions for this one issue. It happens regularly that time normally set aside for planning and envisaging a new future get dribbled away with the next iteration of issues attached to this particular irritating employee.

So, to keep or let go? That is the question. Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years of assisting numerous companies hire, train, coach and part ways with key personnel.

  • The popular notion that “people can’t change” is wrong. People often don’t change because they don’t know how and aren’t motivated to try, but just as old dogs really can learn new tricks, with support people also can and do change.
  • If you are already deep in the swamp of negative emotions, it generally isn’t worth investing in more than a basic effort to help the individual unless they are exceptionally valuable or difficult to replace.
  • If the employee’s contribution is marginal and you haven’t yet begun to make a significant investment, replace them. I’m impressed how many managers or senior leaders know that an employee isn’t really right, but feel lethargic about starting over or think they’re being compassionate by keeping the employee. The compassion is usually misplaced. If we want to help them thrive they need to be working in a situation that plays to their strengths.
  • It may be helpful to take inventory of the individual’s strengths. Does the position use their strengths? Are they enjoying themselves? Are they above average in their results? If they are using their strengths, then the probability of an investment paying off is much greater.
  • These decisions shouldn’t be either “rational” or “emotional” but rather a balance where the rational tempers the emotional and the emotional informs the rational.
  • If the person has a personality irritant, this is a great time to let them decide whether to go or stay. Lay out the issues (If you are not comfortable with difficult conversations, this can be awkward and a coach can be really helpful), ask the employee to decide if they are interested in changing. If so, agree on goals, decide how you will both know if they’re making progress and set a timetable with as specific benchmarks as possible. This is the stuff that coaches do all day long, so again, it is a great place to seek help.

Be certain to look rationally at some of concrete possible results of keeping or firing the employee, have some confidence that with good support (coaching) change is possible and finally pay attention to your instincts but don’t allow them to discourage you unduly or give more weight to your irritation than it deserves.