A former manager of mine recently sought me out for advice on how to handle a challenging employee. I shared with him how I approach this problem, and figured it would make a good blog post for other VP Eng’s.

Coaching team members to better performance is probably already a part of your normal managerial activities.  So, categorizing an employee as a “challenge” represents a pretty serious issue.  The real question you are probably asking as a manager is whether the employee should remain on your team.  Boiling it all down, I think that decision is determined by whether the issue with the employee is fixable within a reasonable timeframe.  Here is my approach.

Core Capabilities for a Role

In order to analyze the employee’s issue, we first need to review what we expect from their particular role.  Expectations for different roles on an engineering team can vary widely.  Therefore, it’s important to clarify the expectations for your employee’s role.  I think about the expectations for a role as a set of capabilities.  I break these down into three layers, which build on each other.

  • Skills. First, every role has a set of skills required to perform the job well. Skills are capabilities that can be learned, usually through training or work experience.  These are often the items listed under the Requirements section of a job description.  Examples might be “5+ years experience as a web developer” or “Working knowledge of configuration management systems, like Chef and Puppet”.  These are items that you likely verified as part of the interview process – claims that can be vetted through a series of questions or coding problems.
  • Abilities. Underneath skills lies a layer of behaviors that determines success at the skills.  These abilities are patterns that the employee can apply to work efforts.  They are assimilated over time through repetition of multiple work or learning experiences.  For a developer, examples might be problem solving, system design, interpersonal communication, project planning, anticipating issues, knowledge building, etc.  These abilities tend to be harder to define, as we usually don’t think about them as requirements to perform a job.
  • Character Traits. Finally, I think there is a set of traits that we just assume all employees have, which we may also take for granted.  These represent a layer below the abilities and are part of what we would describe as an individual’s “character”.  You can also think of these as values.  Examples are integrity, self-confidence, perseverance, personal accountability, compassion, drive for success, intellectual curiosity, etc.

Performance Expectations for the Role

Given this model, consider the required capabilities along these three levels for the challenging employee’s role.  It is usually helpful to jot them down.  For the purpose of this exercise, you can focus on the skills, abilities and traits associated with the employee’s “challenge”.  Going through this exercise will help nail down where an employee’s deficiency might lie.   You can also categorize the capabilities on a level of importance for success in the job – call it “low”, “medium”, “high”.

Evaluating the “Challenge”

With your list of skills, abilities and traits for the role, try to hone in on the specific items which you think makes your challenging employee a challenge.  Which of these capabilities does the employee lack or is weak in?  If the quality of a developer’s code is poor, why is this?  Do you think they lack experience with applying patterns, or do they have weak reasoning skills, or are they just lazy?  If they can’t work effectively as part of a team, what is the root issue?  Have they not worked in a structured development shop before, and don’t understand communication protocols or standard agile processes for planning development work?  Or, do they lack an ability, like anticipating problems, thinking about other people’s needs, or coordinating tasks?  Maybe the issue with teamwork is more fundamental to their character – are they immature, selfish, dishonest, egotistical or mean-sprited?

What to Do

Once you have a clear idea of the root deficiencies that are creating an employee’s challenge, you can make decisions about how to proceed.  Based on the capabilities involved, you can consider next steps along the guidelines below.  The key consideration is whether the deficiency is fixable within a reasonable amount of time.

  • Skills.  Skills can be learned with experience.  If the employee’s deficiency is a skill, then you should consider what training or projects might help the employee build that skill.  There are many resources available online or through formal training classes.  If an employee lacks a skill, but has solid abilities and traits to support the skill, then I would keep the employee on the team.  Form a plan with the employee to build the skill.  Be clear about events and timelines.  You can even share that plan with other team members, so that they know the deficiency is being addressed.  Of course, if the skill is an item that should have been vetted in the interview process or the employee misrepresented their experience, then you have made a bad hire.  In this case, it’s better to correct the hiring mistake (unhire them).
  • Abilities.  An ability can be improved with focus and repetition.  It is less about attending a training class, and more about using work experiences to develop a pattern for doing the work better.  Deficiencies with abilities are generally fixable.  The determination as to whether to work through a weak ability with an employee can be based on how important the ability is to the job and how weak the employee is at it.  A high importance ability that the employee is terrible at will probably not be overcome within a reasonable timeframe.  In that case, it’s better to let the employee go.  However, if the employee just needs marginal improvement at the ability, then you should create an improvement plan with the employee.  As with skills, you can share the performance plan with other team members, so that they can help the employee improve. Success with an ability is subjective and feedback from others helps.
  • Traits.  If the issue is with a character trait, then it is not fixable within a reasonable timeframe.  If an adult is dishonest, lazy, mean or lacks empathy, you are not going to fix this.  Character trait deficiencies are too fundamental – and the employee may not even agree that it needs to be fixed.  Granted, people can change, but these kinds of changes usually take a long time.  You must let an employee go who has an issue with a character trait.

A key part of this process, regardless of the outcome, is to discuss the deficiency with the employee.  If the outcome is skills training or an ability improvement plan, then the employee will likely be very happy that you are willing to invest effort in their growth.  This can make a significant impact on that employee’s retention.  On the other hand, if the outcome is to let the employee go, being honest about the outcome is the best approach.  They will appreciate it, and may even feel relief as the issue is brought to a conclusion.