Tim Sackett’s HR 101: How to Tell an Employee They Suck

Editor’s note: On occasion, we’ll highlight HR wisdom from long-time HR pro Tim Sackett, in his own inimitable style.

You have an employee who sucks, don’t you?

I know, I know; you’re wondering how I knew that, aren’t you?

Well, you came to this post and we all have employees who suck! (To My Own Dear Employees: This is for effect — none of you really suck! Just everyone else reading this post has employees who suck.)

I’ve been out on the road quite a bit lately meeting with HR pros. I meet with people who tell me “we can’t find talent,” but what I usually find is that it’s really,”we can’t get rid of people who suck, so we hire more people to cover up their suckiness.”

Like trying to get rid of your drunk uncle

Don’t feel bad. Almost every organization I know has a problem getting rid of people who suck.

It goers like this: We hire people. They become a part of the family. Then, we find out they suck.

Like your drunk uncle who ruins the holidays, these employees are similar. You don’t stop asking your uncle to come to Christmas, and we don’t ask these employees not to come back to work. So, the sucky employees stay employed.

We meet with them and have “conversations,” and tell them we need them to “step up” and “reach higher” and “give maximum effort.” What we never say is “Hey! Stop sucking!”

We don’t do this because we’re professionals. Also, we would never allow their managers to say this, because that could very well hurt the feelings of these employees who suck.

So, do you want to know how to tell an employee they suck?

3 ways to tell an employee they suck

Here are the three (3) ways you can do it:

  1. Send them a personalized cookie with the words “Stop sucking!” It’s kind of like a Happy Birthday cookie, but instead replace Happy Birthday with “Stop sucking!” For those really outgoing, caring HR Departments you can actually order “Stop sucking!” cookie bouquets that spell this out in cookies baked like letters. How fun!
  2. Offer FREE “Stop sucking” tattoos, but only to them.
  3. Decorate their cube or office door after they leave at night so the next day when they come to work they’ll get a big “Stop sucking!” surprise.

These all sound ridiculously stupid, don’t they? (except for the cookie bouquet – that’s a good one)

They’re almost as ridiculous as not getting rid of employees who suck and hiring additional employees to cover up for an employee who doesn’t carry their own weight.

I get it. We don’t hire employees to fire them. We hire them to productive contributors to our organizations.

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Here’s what happens when you tell an employee

The problem is sometimes, we make mistakes. Sometimes, our selection process fails. Sometimes, we make bad hiring decisions. Sometimes, the hire we thought so highly of, sucks. We usually know it right away, but we give it time, because we hate believing what our gut is telling us.

Telling an employee they suck is an awesome experiment, with no downside.

One of two things usually happens when telling an employee they suck:

  1. They will either realize you’re right and you can start making departure plans; or,
  2. They’ll want to show you your wrong and work to demonstrate they don’t suck.

For me, this has really gone about 50/50. I’m not saying that 50 percent of employees will stop sucking. They’ll try really hard not to suck, but at their core, they suck.

I love seeing the passion they will put out, and many times, that alone will bring them up to a performance level to at least get by. But, rarely do you go from sucking to rock star.

One last  possibility …

There’s a third possibility that might happen when you tell an employee they suck — they won’t agree with you.

That’s OK. It’s not their call. You’re the leader. Your opinion is what counts.

If you feel they suck, they do, at least for you. Let them go so they can  be “great” somewhere else — like for your competitor.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


11 Comments on “Tim Sackett’s HR 101: How to Tell an Employee They Suck

  1. Totally agree that people who suck need to be told that they actually suck. It’s crazy that managers won’t do this !! “I don’t want to hurt their feelings…maybe they’ll get the message in time and improve…can’t I just get HR to tell them they suck?”
    Hey you there, manager-person, it’s your job to tell them they suck and then see if you can get them to not suck. You gotta tell them what you need from them, make your expectations clear and then check that they understand what is required. If you aren’t doing that then maybe you suck at your job and someone needs to tell you.

  2. Either way, it is the HR that truly SUCKS: it’s one of the scenarios:
    – HR has hired an unqualified employee and the responsibility of him sucking rocks at his job is actually HR fault
    – HR has hired a good employee, but he started to suck because something changed, or there is a good reason behind it. Instead of finding out that reason and fixing it (re-engaging) HR chooses to ask the above question “How to tell him” and what is that going to do? I’ll answer: the employee will continue to suck (and take the money) until he quits or HR squeezes him out and will spend more unproductive time and money finding a replacement (and then repeating these scenarios).

    1. You mistake HRs role in an organization. HR only acts in an advisory capacity to tell the hiring manager of their recommendation of who to hire and the consequences of hiring or not hiring the candidates. HR acts in an advisory role and if you allow them to tell you who to hire or not, you are not taking the appropriate level of accountability as a manager or leader in your company.
      Also a ‘sucky’ employee is the managers responsibility since you are their direct supervisor. HR might not even interact with the employee regularly depending on their role and the size of the company. You should be using HR to help you figure out all possible alternatives and the associated consequences of those alternate courses of action.
      I would say that HR will tell you can or can’t hire or fire a certain employee if its against the law. HR professionals have the responsibility to stay within the law so this might be why they tell you to keep a ‘sucky’ employee. Sometimes they know things about an employee’s situation which they can’t share with you due to privacy laws.
      Don’t allow yourself to be dependent on or bullied by HR. they are meant to be your partner and support, not the final decision maker. HR professional will support this concept as shown in all HR association mission statements and code of ethics.

      1. In a magical Candyland, yes – your perceptions would be correct. Sorry, most folks I have worked with do not live there. Example: we do have the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is administered by the Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC). There are clear non-dicrimination statements there, and yet we have ‘citizenship required’ in every other job ad.
        HR = Human Resources. Manages those ‘Resources’ (humans, I presume?) and their health / productivity. Sure, it’s all manager’s fault. And who should make a call if it’s actually a single sucky manager at fault before he has removed all his subordinates and made huge loss? So… don’t try to play it coy and stay aside. If HR is not doing that, who needs it in the first place?

      2. If you think that HR role is limited to hiring process only in an “advisory role”, you have no business whatsoever near HR, and you have not seen a properly functioning HR (which I can easily believe, it’s indeed a seldom occurrence).

  3. In my situation my manager does the hiring, I as the team leader have to deal with the morons he hires and intern has to tell him he has hired retards that did good on their weld test. Yes, my company builds airplane parts, yet this place hires morons to save on hourly wages. Yes that’s right. Moron kids right out of high school are welding the planes you fly on everyday together. Think that one thru. Thank god for our inspection department.

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