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‘My Company Won’t Fire a Bad Employee!’

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A reader writes:

I have a permanent position at a government office and there’s a temp who’s consistently doing sub-par work, with a terrible attitude to boot. It’s extreme — filing documents and cases as completed without doing them at all to boost her performance numbers, losing checks, leaving difficult work undone or hiding it in various folders, using her office phone for social calls for hours and hours. She is famously rude as well — attempting to speak to her, especially to raise any concerns about her work (as we inevitably have to pick up after her), leads to her simply turning her chair away from the person talking to her and refusing to acknowledge them.

The managers are aware of this problem — or at least, I don’t see how they can’t be. Five people in the office have independently raised various issues with her work, over and over the past eight months. Each time, the manager nods and says they’ll take care of it, but they simply tell her to look at an area she’s been neglecting and then leave her to it. (This does not work.)

The cherry on top is that as a temp, her contract has been due to expire — twice. We have also gone through recruitment intakes — twice. Each time, management extends her contract and we are baffled.

Is there a reason beyond us that they might be doing this? Her poor work ethic and attitude is impossible to ignore. And either way, is there anything we can do about it, if speaking to her and raising the issue with managers doesn’t work?

Typically when someone this terrible still has a job, the reason is one of these:

* The person’s manager can’t bring herself to have a hard conversation. Telling someone their performance is unacceptable sucks! Firing someone sucks! But it’s part of the job as a manager — and yet plenty of managers neglect this responsibility because they don’t want to have a difficult conversation. Of course, by neglecting to deal with it, they’re being just as negligent as the bad employee is. Dealing with these sorts of problems is as much a manager’s job as filing cases correctly is part of your temp’s job.

* The person’s manager thinks it will take too much time and energy to find, hire, and train a replacement. This is rarely true. While hiring can indeed be a pain, it’s short-term pain, and living with a low performer is long-term pain. Plus, as with the point above, it’s not okay for a manager to not do a major portion of their job because it feels too onerous or overwhelming.

* The person’s manager feels sorry for them. It’s normal to feel compassion for someone who might lose their job. Compassion is good! But it’s far kinder to be direct with the person about what the problems are, clearly explain what needs to change, and give them a (time-limited) chance to make the needed changes. And ironically, in their quest to be kind to the person who’s struggling, managers who avoid dealing with performance problems are being tremendously unkind to everyone else, whose own work and quality of life is affected by having to work with someone like your temp.

* The manager is hoping the person will leave on their own. Again, this is a terrible approach, and just as negligent as seeing that sales are down and hoping they’ll improve on their own with no intervention. This approach could mean putting up with years of poor performance (which means: frustrating and demoralizing the rest of their staff), all to avoid having an awkward conversation.

* The manager misunderstands the law. Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people because a person happens to be a certain race, age, or religion, or because they happen to be pregnant or have a disability. That’s not how the law works, and managers have a responsibility to educate themselves about that (although that can be hard to do if they’re working with HR people who encourage the same misconception, which is a thing that happens). Another variation of this is that the company requires so much paperwork over such a long period of time (out of a misguided belief that they need to do that to cover their asses legally) that managers conclude it’s not worth the trouble and don’t bother to deal with it. You mentioned you work in government, and this is often a thing there.

* And in some cases, the person is protected by someone important. This is rarer than the other items on this list, but sometimes you get an incompetent person who’s never going to be fired because they’re connected to a VIP (which could be anyone from the CEO to an outside funder). Another variation of this is a person who’s connected to the community in ways that make the employer worry they’ll face significant backlash for firing them (you sometimes see this in nonprofits, churches, and other organizations with a significant social/emotional component to the work).

In your temp’s case, your management’s inaction is particular egregious, since she’s a temp — the whole point is that it’s supposed to be easy to stop working with her. Even if they were too wimpy to fire her, her contract ending makes this as easy as it could possibly get, and yet for some reason they’re extending her contract. Who knows which of the items on the list above could be in play, but I’d bet significant money that the first one — overall wimpiness — is playing a major role.

That said, I’m curious about how direct you and your co-workers have been when you’ve talked to managers about the issue. Have you soft-pedaled the problems, as people sometimes do when they raise complaints about someone else’s work? If so, now’s the time for a much more direct, assertive conversation — as in, “Jane’s work is unacceptable and is interfering with our ability to meet work goals. I know she’s been warned repeatedly, but the problems have continued. We need to replace her — what do we need to do to get a different temp in to do this work?” Approach it as if of course you can’t keep on a temp whose work is this bad; sometimes that framing can jar an oblivious or conflict-avoidant manager into realizing they’re going to need to act.

Also, you said people have talked to “managers” — you should be talking to the person with direct authority over the temp, and if that produces no action, possibly to that person’s boss. And depending on your role, it might help to have your own manager use their own clout to push this.

But if that doesn’t get any action, then the conclusion to draw is that you’re working for a company that for some reason is willing to tolerate incredibly poor performance and rude behavior. Usually when that’s the case, and it’s allowed to continue this long, there are other issues too, like bosses who won’t make tough decisions, a low performance bar across the staff, and a lack of strong management skills in general. In other words, it’s not really about the temp at all; she’s one symptom of a much bigger problem.

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‘My Company Won’t Fire a Bad Employee!’