Getting out of Limbo Land with Difficult Employees, Part 1


While many hiring managers do their best to hire talented people with the right attitude, mistakes happen and the wrong employees end up on the team.

Even if the work they do is valuable (or even critical), these employees become a challenge that sets the foundation for mediocrity. They keep leaders in Limbo-Land, hoping behavior will change, even though these employees’ actions are a clear violation of team values.

As a leader, how do you decide whether to fire the errant employee or keep them on? Let’s start by trying to keep them on.

Most leaders want their employees to do well, and most employees want to be successful. So begin by clarifying your guiding principles (or company values) and refuse to deviate from them.

Any violations of values should be pointed out. If the problem is corrected immediately, then you’ve gained a great employee. But if the problem persists, then it’s time to show them the door (I’ll talk about that in the next blog).

I came across this very issue with a contractor I hired to help with my marketing. One of my guiding principles is “honor your word.” That is, if you say you will do something, do it, or readjust expectations if things come up.

While I hired Kevin to create and work a product launch plan, he was doing many tasks that were not in our original agreement, but failing to fulfill on his promises

“You ask for my help with something, and I have a hard time saying ‘no.’ Then, I end up agreeing to do more, even though I don’t have time to do everything,” Kevin said during a conversation that occurred as a result of frustration.

After repeating back what I heard him say, I realized that I was actually hoping he would do all I put on his plate, without complaint. That doesn’t work so well, clearly. He doesn’t know how to say “no,” and I’m exceptionally good at asking for help, even if it’s above and beyond the scope of work – an opportunity for growth for both of us.

Once we got clear about our challenge and reset expectations, I began looking for his ability to complete the work he agreed to do. If not, I needed to end our working relationship.

Clarifying expectations and sticking to your values will move you out of limbo-land, and onto having the team of your dreams. In the case of Kevin, my first step was to understand where the problem was coming from (turns out it was both of us). If the problem persists, its time to move on.

The first phase of getting out of limbo-land:

  • Clarify your guiding principles or values;
  • Identify where the problem is;
  • Communicate expectations.

The first reason to keep someone, even if they’re underperforming: because you haven’t yet communicated expectations, or let them know the consequences of unmet expectations. Once you’ve done that, it’s on them. And if they don’t? Check out next week’s blog.



Thanks to Gillycuddy and Dexter Britain for their music contribution and LN Lurie for producing this podcast.

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