Ask Salt&Light: Should I let an underperforming employee go?

Christine Ong // November 13, 2018, 6:43 pm

ask underperforming employee

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.

Dear Salt&Light,

I manage a team of 20 employees at my tax advisory firm. One of my staff members has been underperforming for the past year after a family accident early last year. I have been easy on him despite repeated mistakes. I don’t know whether it’s time for me to let him go, especially if we are told to be compassionate, kind and patient (Colossians 3:12, Ephesians 4:32).

Beatrice L, 45 , tax consultant 

It is a huge responsibility for a manager to lead a team. As a believer in Christ, we also desire to hold true to kingdom values, exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit while being good stewards of all that has been entrusted to us. For we work not just for the organisation but ultimately for the Lord God.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men … you are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Business management writer Patrick Lencioni points out: Management is a form of ministry.

I, too, believe that all managers can, and should, view their work as a ministry, or a service to others.

By helping people find fulfilment in their work, and helping them succeed in whatever they are doing, a manager can have a profound impact on the emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual health of workers and their families.

They can also create an environment where employees do the same for their peers, giving them a sort of ministry of their own. All of which is nothing short of a gift from God.

There is a loving balance between accountability and mercy in addressing most employee performance issues.

At the same time, if an organisation is well managed and led, it becomes more effective in its mission.

In the process of helping your employees find fulfilment in their work and succeed, the manager must not only affirm good performance but also address underperforming employees.

There is a loving balance between accountability and mercy in addressing most of the employee performance issues you deal with.

1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 is instructive from a practical and biblical perspective: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

Paul is “urging” the Thessalonians to address issues sooner than later.

“Urge” is from the Greek word parakaleo, which means “to come alongside” and gives the idea of patiently providing help to someone.

We are to consider our employee’s good – that which is best for them – seeking to understand the heart of their behaviour.

We are to consider their good – that which is best for them (Philippians 4:8) – seeking to understand the heart of the behaviour rather than treat each person the same way.

Whatever the situation, managers must not hesitate to confront poor performers, making every effort to provide them with all the training, tools and resources necessary for them to succeed.

A manager who is skilled at managing employee performance will result in a team that will consistently meet or exceed their goals.

In this specific situation, a long-term employee may be unusually negligent while going through a difficult personal situation. Although you have shown patience, understanding over a period of time, he or she continues to be subpar in their work. 

Here are some considerations:

  • Don’t avoid addressing the issue because of sympathy

As Christian managers, we tend towards having a sympathetic heart and hesitate to address underperformance to avoid being viewed as “hard hearted” and dishonouring God.

But Christ did confront ungodly behaviour while still displaying love for those He confronted. You can be patient, understanding and come alongside the employee up to a certain point, but accommodating the employee in the long-term will have negative results on the individual and the team.

Your team is watching how you handle him or her. Failure to address the behaviour sends the message that poor performance is tolerated. This will eventually lower the overall performance and morale of the team.

  • Seek to understand the reason for the poor performance

If the employee is still facing personal issues, then he or she may need help from a specialist.

But if there are other reasons such as a lack of sufficient training or lack of the proper skill set, then a different approach may be required to address each situation.

  • Confirm the disciplinary issue that needs to be addressed

Gather the facts from the employee, verify with other objective observers and then take the necessary action based on factual knowledge. Always stick to the facts.

If the problem is serious, you may need a witness or further managerial support to address it.

  • Maintain objectivity

Manage your emotions, refrain from being overly sympathetic or angry. Remain focused on work-related issues and provide factual responses to how the employee is failing to meet the expectations of the role.

Be prepared for an emotional response but do not react hastily to it.

Mercy and grace should be the primary focus when you address every individual, regardless of their behaviour.

Most of all, maintain a Gospel mindset. Mercy and grace should be the primary focus when you address every individual, regardless of their behaviour.

While the short term objective is to address employee performance, the long term objective is for all to know Christ, through our lives.

So in everything, commit all decisions to God, asking the Holy Spirit who is within us for knowledge and wisdom.

Be a leader who understands the balance between holding individuals accountable to job performance while maintaining a focus on Christ’s desire for them. Let your commitment to Christ and His mission guide your steps.

Other than the Bible, I recommend reading Work Biblically by Brett Billups and What’s Best Next by Matt Perman, to help you seek wisdom for your current circumstance.

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About the author

Christine Ong

Christine Ong was a UBS executive for 18 years with close to 40 years of marketplace experience. She now runs her own consultancy firm C Ong Associates, which coaches C-suite executives and business leaders.