How to manage good employees who are struggling to succeed

Christian was hired onto a team of artists. He was an ideal employee—he had a great work ethic, great attitude, and was a great cultural fit. There was only one problem—as the company grew, it became apparent that his artistic skills weren’t up to their standards. Going down a traditional route, Christian was offered the additional training and resources he needed to bridge the skills gap from where he was to where he needed to be.

Unfortunately, it just wasn’t working. Many employers can appreciate this dilemma. What could you do with someone like Christian who couldn’t do his job but embodied the ethos of the company?

Right person, right seat

No one starts a company with the intention of firing people. It’s hard to see your people fail. According to a research project by author Jim Collins, companies find success when they focus first on finding great people.

While it might be tempting to cut someone loose if they’re struggling to succeed after traditional attempts of offering more training, the turnover may cost more than you think. A study by the Center for American Progress suggests replacing an employee can cost more than 20 percent of their annual salary, while the Society for Human Resource Management pegs that number as high as 50–60 percent. That doesn’t even mention indirect costs, which SHRM suggests could be up to 90–200 percent of their salary.

Let culture be your gateway

Although Christian was struggling to succeed, one of his teammates, Jeff, was a very talented designer. He got along with most of his colleagues, he did great work and consistently made great contributions to the team.

Jeff, however, harbored a racial prejudice, manifested in the subtle ways he acted toward a co-worker.

Respect would be considered a common core value at most companies, which this behavior clearly violates, even though Jeff insisted it was harmless joking around. This scenario puts a company at a crossroads: Do you stand by the company’s core values and lose a talented designer and contributing member of the team? Or do you let the situation continue to avoid having to find a replacement?

Compromising core values shouldn’t be tolerated, so Jeff was let go.

At the time, there was no plan for how to find a replacement for Jeff. Creating a culture that motivates your employees to do the right thing means you, as their leader, also need to do the right thing. To borrow the adage, actions speak louder than words. A scenario like the one with Jeff provides a chance to show everyone in the company that your values are more than just words.

Finding the right fit

While Jeff’s skills could have kept him employed, he wasn’t a cultural fit. On the other hand, after training failed to make a difference, it was clear Christian’s skills didn’t fit in with the team of artists, even though he was clearly a cultural fit. Instead of letting him go, leadership decided to move him to technical support. The result was similar. Christian continued his great attitude, work ethic and cultural fit—but his work was just as ineffective.

Not willing to give up easily on someone who was obviously the right person for the organization, he was moved again—this time to the production team, creating a role that wasn’t there before.

You know what? He blossomed.

Christian applied his broad knowledge from bouncing around other teams to develop a new production pipeline that helped the weaknesses of teams he’d worked so closely with. In no time at all, Christian became an invaluable part of the team and pushed the company to new levels of productivity that they had never before been able to accomplish.

It’s easy to focus on skills. Job ads are typically placed for your company’s immediate needs and similarly, people are let go when they struggle to meet the expectations they were hired to achieve. When you’re building a successful culture, there’s another side to the coin that goes beyond skills. When employees are struggling to succeed, first ask yourself if you have the right person—do they fit in your company? If so, take the time to help them find their right seat in your company and watch them flourish.

Written by Piyush Patel for CW Magazine.