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Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”  According to The Free Dictionary this phrase means, “when forced to decide, it is better to choose a difficult or undesirable option that one is used to or familiar with rather than an unknown person or thing.”

My definition is, stick with what you got, as you never know what you will get!  The devil you know “appears” to be the path of least resistance, and sometimes that is the correct choice, and other times it is not!

A recent article in the Business Journal by editor-in-chief of The Playbook stated, “In the tight labor market, some employers are hesitant to fire mediocre performers.” The Devil You Know…

Rather than using the description “mediocre,” I consider the following may be reasons for the underperforming employee:

  • The employee lacks training.
  • The employee lacks direction.
  • The employee has “something” going on in their life.
  • The employee is not a match for our company and needs to move on and find an organization that is aligned with their skills and abilities.

When these situations occur, the antidote is “leadership presence.”


A client read this article and called me to discuss it. He said, “We partnered, and over the last year we have systematically dealt with people who were not performing. We talked to them, coached, and ultimately made difficult decision with respect and grace. The changes were difficult but necessary. Now we have stronger people than we have ever had and are ready for growth and change. Our culture and productivity have never been this strong. Will we have people challenges in the future? Sure, but we are better equipped to manage them. Thank you.”

Consider these statistics, terminations and layoffs have remained flat at 1% in 2022 and the quit rate is 3.1% in 2022. The quit rate could be the offer of more money, better benefits, or a different position for the employee, or it could be the result of company culture or the current team.

When the leader DOES NOT deal with an underperforming employee, you send a message that the level of performance exhibited is acceptable. The lowest level of performance or productivity becomes the standard, and other employees may start to slide. Good performers don’t judge the underperforming employee, they judge the leader… WHY ARE YOU PUTTING UP WITH THIS?

When the leader DOES deal with an underperforming employee, it sends the message that you have values, standards, and “walk the talk.” It also communicates to the remaining employees, I value you and your contribution, and want you to work with others who are doing their best.

You may be shaking your head and saying, “But, I can’t find people and I need to get the work done!”  I know, it is difficult, but would you rather lose the underperforming employee or your star performers?

Have you ever made a change with an underperforming employee, and team members asked, “What took you so long?” When the environment becomes less toxic, the team typically bands together and steps up. The leader then says, “Why did I wait so long, I should have done this a long time ago!

When faced with underperforming employees below are points to consider:

  • The leader must look in the mirror and consider are you walking the talk? Remember, the leader casts a shadow based on what they do, what they say, and what they will tolerate. If the leader has a “bad day,” is inconsistent, or sends mixed messages, the employees mirror that behavior. Bottom line, leadership presence makes a difference!
  • Once the leader identifies an underperforming employee, it is time to start or continue the recruiting process to identify a potential replacement.
  • Talk to the underperforming employee and provide specific examples of behavior or performance that are not meeting standards. This conversation cannot be delivered via email or text, but must be face-to-face (online included) to interpret body language and solidify commitment. Coach the underperforming employee regarding the expectations and desired outcomes for the job and set a SMART GOAL. These are  Specific. Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Sensitive. Include one outcome in each goal and set  timeframes for short-term results to determine commitment and progress. “You need to complete x task by y date.” “You need to immediately stop sharing negative feedback (give example) with the team.”
  • After the coaching, the leader may become aware of improvements, or necessary mid-course corrections. Immediately communicate these to the underperforming employee (preferably within 24 hours).
  • If improvement is not made, continue the progressive coaching process.
  • If the situation is egregious, partner with an HR or legal professional to gain insight and coaching to handle the situation quickly and correctly.
  • If the underperforming employee leaves the organization, gather remaining team members together, communicate the change with respect and confidentiality. and explain next steps.

Making a change with an underperforming employee is difficult, but it provides an opening to hire the next rock star who may help change the face of the company! Remember, the devil you know may not be better than the devil you don’t!