Employee Issue: Train or Let Go?

A shop owner is on the fence about a new hire: keep him on and hope for improvement, or fire him now? Experienced employers discuss philosophies and approaches. July 24, 2005

I need some mentor-like advice on a hiring/firing decision. Here's the scenario: I have a single employee who's been with me for about a month now. He's been in the business for about six years. His attributes are as follows: reliable, a steady worker, personable, honest, His challenges are: mediocre math and problem solving, slow, negative, no great initiative. I tend to think you need to hire and retain the best if you want your business to prosper, but perhaps I'm expecting too much? Any help would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
A month isn’t long enough to fairly evaluate performance. I would give the guy more of a chance. It's hard enough to find people with the good attributes you describe. If the behaviors that bother you continue, then have a sit down with him and give him a chance to improve.

From contributor B:
Don't be in such a rush. I've been in the business for twelve years, and it took me six months to get comfortable in my last shop. It takes some people more time than others, where I work at ninety days an improvement needs to be seen and then at a year.

From contributor D:
In training and developing individuals it is necessary to know their diversity and be able to demonstrate a realistic understanding. Supervisors have the potential to create high performing employees if they will believe the employee has potential. An employee will have a higher motivation when working for a positive thinking supervisor.

The object is to make the most of each team players' unique perspective and potential and make them feel believed in. Use passion and empower them. Successful job training includes excellent job description (which should be written). Also define team goals. Give this person a well structured work environment - highly organized with strong training and share business plans and goals and explain individual expectations. Having high expectations is fine, and can often lead to exceptional results.

From contributor G:
If you have reservations about this guy now, I doubt they will get better. In my experience, thirty days is plenty to evaluate a person on the vital information you need. The qualities you mentioned, both good and bad, aren't the type you're going to change by leading. A good leader also knows when to cut their losses. Only you can answer the question, but if you don't have faith in the guy now it probably won't change. At that point, you’re just putting off the inevitable (and possibly missing another opportunity).

From contributor A:
Trust your instincts. Too often I have waited to give an employee a chance, and been burned. Don't wait for more issues. Find just cause, and get rid of him.

From contributor J:
I have been in a position of leadership in both an extensive military career, civil service and in the private sector. I have led people and have had the invaluable experience of learning from great leaders, and equally as valuable from some poor ones. For someone to say that you cannot change or improve qualities of an individual by leading them is absolutely absurd, it goes against the fundamental concepts of leadership.

It is one thing if the person is dishonest, a thief, unsafe or otherwise unreliable, you cannot afford to keep those types around. You are saying this is not the case, so cutting your losses this early in the game is not, in my opinion, appropriate. In fact, the attributes that you describe that need adjustment are, while still challenging, the easiest ones to deal with.

It is good that you consider this person's shortcomings challenges, as that is exactly what they are, for you and for him. Furthermore, it is your responsibility to ensure that this person performs to your expectations, not his. This starts by communicating to him exactly what your expectations are.

Contributor D has given you great advice that I think you should seriously consider. Maintaining employees is a tremendous responsibility and requires great effort. Consider some of the people you have worked for and which ones made you a better employee, and which ones did not.

From contributor D:
Just because you’re a small business doesn't mean you shouldn't structure it as a large business would. Embrace and employ written job description, specifications, training , evaluation, and one on one discussion of good and bad performance.(All should be written) Allow the employee to own his job and be responsible for it. His job will be enriched and he will feel a necessary part of your business. The attributes you mentioned are hard to find, and as Contributor J pointed out, the potential is there, do your job structure and lead.

From contributor G:
Qualities like mediocre math and problem solving, slow, negative, no great initiative are certainly challenges to change. You know this person better than anyone else, so it's obviously your decision on what to do.

My experience, in smaller shop environments, is that seldom do those qualities change. But you can go against your gut feeling, and risk spending a great deal of time for no gain. I agree that you should hire and retain the best. It doesn't sound like this guy has those attributes you need. Unlike larger companies, one bad (or mediocre) employee can make a huge impact on the bottom line. On the other hand, good cabinetmakers are very hard to find, and you have to know whether you can find better. Sometimes, the replacement can be worse!

From contributor E:
Your job is to decide whether you profit from each employee. Pay should reflect productivity. For the two man shop each must perform at their best. This dynamic is far different then that of a larger shop. My opinion is talk to him, explain your expectations,, and give him time to either improve or move on in thirty days.

From contributor V:
It generally takes 3-6 months for someone to become comfortable in a new work environment. Thirty days is far too less a time. You have some really good basic qualities in this person, honestly, reliability etc. Those are excellent building blocks for the foundation. I would give a thirty day update review with no ultimatums, this could help with his negativity. Then do a quick review at sixty days and ninety days. Do not be thinking about letting him go until at least ninety days.

From contributor A:
I hire people to solve problems for me. When or if they create more problems than they solve, or if the overall costs - money, time, stress are too high, out they go. My business is about me and my security. I am not a therapy center, a rehabilitation center, or a home for mal-adjusted people. I am a woodworking business with a pre-set number of hours per month in which to produce x amount of work at y amount of money in order to succeed.

If an employee can help me do that he or she is a keeper, if not, they find fulfillment somewhere else. A month is plenty of time. Bad math is not a recent development in this person it is a permanent condition. If I have to stand behind an employee and add or subtract for him or tell him to “cut this board there", he is not solving problems for me, he's making them. Remember the three reasons why you hire people:
1. They extend my reach enabling me to do what I couldn't do before
2. They multiply my effectiveness, allowing me to do those unique things that only I as owner/manager can do.
3. And, perhaps most importantly, they divide my work. An employee has to make my life easier not harder, more productive not less so, and earn me more than they cost me.

From the original questioner:

Interesting that there are the two schools of thought, fairly evenly divided. As some have said, you have to go with your gut. Meanwhile, I'm hiring a young guy in his last term at a local cabinetmaking college who comes highly recommended to come in to help out. If he works out, I will make a switch when he becomes available full time.

With that said, I'm a firm believer in the requirement for employees to produce at their salary level. Unless there is some significant response, I'll probably let him go. I don't have a large enough cash reserve to let him improve slowly.

From contributor P:
Six years of experience isn't much when you consider a thirty plus year career. If any of us are sitting back waiting for the perfect employee to walk through the door, it isn’t going to happen. He's already working for someone else. As was mentioned above, the problems you are concerned with are the most easily changed.

Each one of us who are successful in the industry can think of at least one person form our past who helped shape us in a positive way. None of us were born knowing what we know. We as managers have a responsibility to the industry, as well as ourselves, to develop good people. If we are not willing to do that, then the future of industry is doomed!

From contributor L:
It seems to me that both schools of thought are correct. If you can afford it, train and mold the employee to fit your puzzle perfectly. If you're spending more than he's making you, and things are tight, you simply can't afford him.

You should have a GPM (gross per man) formula as a guide. I'd say it takes sixty-ninety days for a new employee to learn that shop’s system, depending on the system and the employee. Building a box with doors isn't rocket science, so the learning period is more about learning your system.

Also keep in mind that you can teach people methods, styles and systems, but you usually can’t teach them to think. All this is the main reason many shops implement good flow systems. A good system means less thinking and less chance of human error. It also denotes the speed of the flow, not the speed of the man. So, you may consider your system as well as his/her ability to flow at a reasonable pace. Also, consider that this advice comes from a man who works alone, only hiring temps for installs etc. because I haven't figured out how to keep good people, or even find them.

From contributor G:
To contributor P: Can you tell us how "mediocre math and problem solving, slow, negative, no great initiative" are attributes that are easy to change? With six years experience, these are certainly not easy traits to change in a person.

From contributor P:
To contributor D: Many trade workers in our society work under the, “Do as I say, don't think for yourself," management theory. I encountered a problem with that recently. A contractor sent a man to install vinyl base in kitchen of an office suite and the cabinets in the kitchen were not installed yet. It was obvious from the plumbing stubbed out of the wall, the height of the elec. outlets, that there would be cabinets installed along the wall. Instead of asking about the possibility of cabinets, the tradesman installed vinyl base all around the room. When I questioned him about it, his comment was, "I was just told to put up vinyl base." I asked if he saw there were to be cabinets installed and he replied, "Yes, but I'm not paid to think."

Now, how does this type of attitude get started? It begins with supervisors and managers who are unwilling to allow employees the latitude to think for themselves. In other words they are told, "Do what I tell you and nothing else." I suspect that the individual in question has worked for six years under similar circumstances.

The "Do what I tell you," syndrome doesn’t promote problem solving skills, or motivation, and it contributes to slow production and no real need to do well with math, because someone is always working his problems for him, and then he does what he is told to do. We get out of an employee what we put in.

These traits are easily changed by enabling an employee to begin to succeed. The more he succeeds the more confident and motivated he will become. That leads to being more positive about his job and his work. And as far as the math, he will realize his weakness and ask questions, and even do some study on his own to become more proficient

From contributor P:
At times when a new employee was under performing, it was only a matter of a couple of weeks, even less, until a drastic difference was noted. Other employees in the shop, without knowing it, exert a positive and powerful influence. One employee with some deficiencies will not drag down other good employees. The reverse of that is true, positive peer pressure. And, new employees want to fit in. Generally, they rise to meet the challenge.

There is one thing I haven't said here. Obviously nothing in this world is a guarantee. There are those who come along who can't be helped and it doesn't take much to figure that out. I've had a couple of those. But, more often I've ended up with some very fine, loyal competent employees. And I'm glad I had every one of them. In fact, a handful eventually left to take better jobs as foreman, and managers, in cabinet making, and other areas of industry.