Managing a Slow Worker

Cabinetmakers discuss the problem of whether, and how, to terminate an employee who is slowing the shop down by being too darn meticulous. October 2, 2007

I run a small cabinet and trim business. My lead employee has over 20 years experience (only 2 years with me). Unfortunately, he's slowing down noticeably and I'm starting to price myself out of my market as I try to cover costs to the business. I am trying to increase efficiency generally but I am getting more and more questions from contractors regarding the time it takes to do things. We are only myself, my main employee and an apprentice, so we each contribute a large share to the cost structure. This employee is great in many, many respects but I am increasingly wondering if I can afford him. He does not handle change or pressure well. He is a perfectionist but he spends endless hours on details that no one sees or appreciates. Making changes to work habits that have developed over decades isn’t easy. Perhaps this is just a rant as I look at my year end accounts. Has anyone been in this sort of situation?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor H:
I have been in your position. He has only been with you 2 years? Let him go now or tell him how and why you want things done your way. If he does not conform, or want to, tell him he can leave. Better now than 2 more years from now. With that much experience and that level of fussiness, he should have his own shop. Train your apprentice your way. Not him training your apprentice his way! It will hurt at first, but the only real indispensable employee in your company is you.

From contributor J:
I am in the same situation that you are in. The first of the year I put this person on piece work. It has increased his output to some degree. I also now list him as a subcontractor, not an employee. The difference is I do not have to use him all the time. I decided to hold onto his strong points and let go of all else.

From contributor T:
You and this fellow may have an agreement that he is a sub-contractor, but the IRS might disagree. They have a matrix of about thirteen conditions that they lay over these relationships when interpreting employee status. These conditions include such things as who provides the place of employment, buys the materials, regular pay dates, etc.

This situation only has to satisfy a few of those conditions to make the IRS conclude that he is indeed an employee (regardless what you call it and regardless of whether you issue him a 1099). If this is the case and this fellow does not pay his taxes, the IRS will eventually paper you as well. You have to remember that the tax man has had 5000 years to hone his craft.

From contributor K:
Contributor H, you make a good point regarding the need to avoid having him train the apprentice. This has been happening as I'm often dealing with clients, drawings, etc. I realize it's not a good way to go. The sub-contractor problem is very real also. I know of a contractor and two employees who are all essentially bankrupt because the government is garnishing wages for years of inappropriate sub-contracting.

From contributor O:
I know exactly what you are going through. However, my man, in your same situation, is my very best friend. So it was very tough. It is especially hard when what they do is exceptional work. I justified it for years by saying, "at least I never have to re-do what he does." And that is very valuable. My man knows he is slow and tried and tried to get past it, but the detail that would never be noticed, still remained. As difficult as it was, I finally had to weed him out of work. You must cut him loose before you lose it all. My guy almost cost me my company.

If you see a problem affecting the bottom line and don't do anything to resolve it, then you are not being fair to yourself, your customer, and any other employees you may hire in the future. I was accused of mismanagement of funds. But the only mismanagement I did was paying employees too much money. Save your company, save your butt, and cut him loose, now.

From contributor J:
I fully understand the government rule concerning employee and sub. This decision required this person to become licensed, incorporated, workers comp exempt (Florida rule), and insured. Also I am not the only company he works for. He also sets his own schedule and supplies his own tools.

From contributor I:
No one mentioned the performance review. 30 days, 85 days, 6 months, and annually after that. In the review, you state what they need to change and by when. If they don't change, they are made aware that they could lose their job. Keeping a job is a strong motivator for most people. And the review is a much better place to correct behavior than the “scream, throw things, fire” method.

From contributor P:
We just fired a guy like that. We told him what the problem was, reviewed him, trained him, whatever; it made no difference. He was simply unwilling to change his (incredibly inefficient) ways. We let this drag out through about nine months when it was clear from the get-go that he wasn't improving. You have to give your guy a chance to change, but if it ain't happening, then better to fire him sooner. My blood pressure used to shoot up every time I looked at this guy, now I am so glad he is gone, even though he was an excellent craftsman and personally a nice person. But if he can't work at a professional speed, then he shouldn't be a professional. You are much better taking the energy and money he is wasting and putting into your young people and buying more efficient machines.

From contributor I:
I have had an employee exactly like that! As painful as it may be, you must let him go! If you do not, you hold a one way ticket to bankruptcy court! If I had known then what I know now, I would have fired him on his first day, when I assigned him to replicate a door sample rotary for a home show we had coming up. He literally spent 7 hours laying out the hexagon shape for the top. He used a combination of compasses, squares, and several other elaborate tools for the layout process. When I returned to check his work, he actually thought I was going to be impressed with the layout job, which was incredible, had it been necessary. I demonstrated how I would have done it. I threw a piece of 3/4 ply on top of the one we were replicating and traced it. It took me about 30 seconds!

You must be very careful of people like this. Although they are brilliant, intelligent, and can probably split the nucleus of an atom, they have trouble tying their own shoes.

I am in business to make money. Simplicity makes money. These people are there to prove something. I have had several of these over the years, and by God, get rid of them as soon as possible! Friend or no friend, they will break you.

From contributor S:
I had to laugh when I read your post. I laughed because I'm the slow guy who fusses too long with the details. Yes, as a matter of fact, I used to split atoms for a living. For the last 11 years, though, I've worked in a two man shop where we do FF inset cabs and anything else that is really custom woodworking (entrance doors, custom moldings, etc). I very much realize the cost of time to get a job out of the door.

Here's something I learned a long time ago in another business. When you give a job to someone, you should tell them the time it should take to do the job, and the standard to which the job is to be done. Giving a job without those pieces of information and then criticizing the time or quality after the fact is not good for anyone. This is very critical information for a person who is trying to do the best possible job they can. Without a time frame, he cannot make the decisions necessary to make time and quality meet at the end.

If your fellow doesn't meet the time and quality standard after being told what they are up front, then perhaps it's time for him to find himself in another field. You may already be doing those things, and more. This is not meant to be a dig on your management style. Just thought you may like to hear it from the other side.