Before you sack them, have you considered...

Years ago I came across an awesome article about 4 ways to deal with employee issues. The problem is, I can’t remember where I read it, nor could I remember exactly what the 4th method was. In trying to remember, I actually came up with 5 distinct reasons why you may have a problem with an employee, and what to do about it.

In the original article that used the example of a staff member smoking in the wrong spot in a large organisation. There is a designated smoking area, but they weren’t using it. It’s a great practical example and can highlight all possible causes and responses.

Cause 1: Unaware

It may be as simple as the person not knowing they aren’t allowed to smoke anywhere they like, or in that particular area.

Generally, when an employee is doing the wrong thing (or not doing the right thing), is it simply because they don’t know. “Assumed knowledge” or “common sense” is not as assumed or as common as we would hope.

Solution: Instruction

The obvious answer is to simply tell them that they are doing the wrong thing.

Of course it isn’t always that simple. What if it is standard knowledge for their role and they should know? What if it is a cultural assumption and the person is from another country? What if there is just a long list of things that they need to be told about?

There are also ways to broach the subject. Does it need to be a quiet conversation on the side? Will the person be open to being told they have been doing the wrong thing? Who is the best person to do this?

BUT, before you start to judge the person for poor performance, ask yourself if they actually know they are doing the wrong thing.

Cause 2: Ignorance

Our smoker knows they are meant to smoke in the smoking area, they just don’t know where it is. They are lacking the knowledge to be able to perform the task.

As an extension of “unaware” is “ignorance” of how to do the right thing. The person knows they should be doing something, but they don’t have the required knowledge to do it.


Solution: Training and informing

As cause 2 is related to cause 1, the solution is also similar. Now we need to go beyond simply telling them they are doing the wrong thing, and now need to train them in doing the right thing. This could be in face to face instruction, documentation, instructional videos, signs, etc. “etc” is just a great way of saying “any other way you can get the message across”.

For the smoker example, training could simply be a site induction for new employees that includes showing them where the designated smoking areas are. It may be having signs around to inform the general public.

Once again, this is a great simplistic answer. This assumes that the company has a training culture and is willing to invest the time, money and effort required. It assumes that training is available.

It also assumes that the person is open to learn ,but this is now leading into the other causes.

Keep in mind, the original problem was that they didn’t know how to do the right thing. The simple solution is to tell them how to do the right thing.


Cause 3: Inability

The person may be fundamentally unable to do the right thing.

For our smoker friend, it may be because they don’t have access to the designated smoking area. It may be because they don’t have sufficient time to get to the area and back again within the allocated break time. It may be because the smoking area has been closed due to renovations.

Solution: Equip

The simple answer is to ensure that the employee has everything needed to be able to do the right thing. This includes having:

  • the physical tools required,
  • the time necessary,
  • the authority,
  • no competing requirements 

For the smoking example, this could involve having more smoking venues, longer breaks or access to some shortcuts.

Cause 4: Unwilling

This is the one that we all dread. It is where the person is just unwilling to do what is required. They would prefer to do the wrong thing, or not do the right thing. It’s a fundamental attitude issue.

For example, with the smoker it may be that they think they are exempt from the rule, or that it is just a waste of their time.

Solution: Mmmm

This is where the rubber is really hitting the road. There is no simple solution.

Have a discussion with them to work out why they don’t think it applies to them. Is it really one of the other reasons, but they won’t admit it (it is sometimes easier to say you don’t want to do something than you don’t know how to do it). 

Ensure they know the reasons why something is required and the consequences for not doing it. 

But at the end of the day, if they still refuse, then you need to make the hard decision.  Is it something that you want to pursue? Is it worth the fight?

If so, it’s time to do the formal reporting. You may need legal advice at this time.

And ultimately, if they still refuse to do what is required, is it time to part ways (and really get legal advice at this stage).

Of course it may be because it’s not part of their job, and they should not be expected to do it. It may be YOU that need to change expectations.

Cause 5: Incapable

This is the one that I think was missing from the original list. It is where the employee is simply incapable of doing the right thing.

For our smoker example, the smoking area may be on the second floor and they are in a wheel chair and there is no lift. It’s just not going to happen. 

(OK, technically I would argue that this is an example of not equipped, but I am trying to come up with some example where you can say “yes, that person just can’t do it”. )

Better examples of this would include employees who aren’t able to learn the skills for the job, or don’t have the right attitude and just can’t change. 

I had one person where we spent a month trying to teach them how to engage with customers on the phone. After a month we just had to admit that she wasn’t the right person for the job. 

Solution: Remove, reassign, or remove

If they can’t do what is required of them because they just can’t do it, then there are really only 3 options open to you:

  • remove the task from their role. 
  • reassign the person to another role that they are capable of fulfilling.
  • remove the person from the role (i.e. dismiss them). 

This was the crappy part of the job. In my situation,  talking to customers on the phone was the job, we didn’t have an alternative position, and dismissal was the only possible outcome.

It does beg the question why they were employed in the first place, and I’ve asked myself that question many times.

But sometimes roles change. People change. Situations change.

Cause 1: Ignorance

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