The Chronic Low Performer – How Do They Manage to Stick Around?

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Do you guys want to know a little secret?

You know how I like hanging out with smokers, because they have all the cool inside information before anyone else? Your chronic low performers have a similar skill. It’s kind of “like” information.

Chronic low performers are really good at being low performers. They’ve figured it out! They’ve figured out how to do the bare minimum, without getting fired, and you still pay them for showing up and continuing to give you low performance.

If that isn’t a skill, than I don’t know what skills are! Let that marinade a little on your mind.

How do chronic low performers survive?

Yes, the only reason you have a chronic low performer is that they have figured out how to master low performance.

All of us have chronic low performers. We’ve shot them a million times behind closed doors, but never pulled the trigger when the door was open.

I can distinctly remember having conversations about a certain manager when I was at Applebee’s at six (6) straight calibration meetings over three (3) years, and heard stories about him before I’d come into the organization. He just was good/bad enough to keep hanging on.

At one meeting we’d be short, so he’d make it one more session. Then next meeting, we’d have some idiot do something really bad, so Mr. Chronic Low Performer lives to suck another day! The next meeting, it would be some other lame reason. Each time, the guy made it by just squeaking by.

Think about all of people you’ve ever let go. They usually fall into three or four groups:

  1. Bad Performer/bad fit from the start (you shot them early);
  2. Good Performer who did something really stupid (you didn’t want to fire, but had to);
  3. Layoffs (decision above your pay grade); and
  4. Chronic Low Performers (this hardly ever happens because they rarely do anything really stupid, and personally, you don’t hate them).

How these people seem to survive

We have Chronic Low Performers because they make it easy for us to keep them.

They say the right things when we tell them they need to pick it up or else. They’re “company” people, all except for actually adding value. They give you no major reason to let them go, — except for not really doing that good of a job. They always seem to have a semi-legitimate reason for not performing well.

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I always wonder how much money chronic low performers have cost organizations vs. the good/great performers we had to let go because they pushed the envelope a little too far and we had to fire them. My guess is the low performers win hands-down.

You could have a great sales person who is constantly fudging his expense reports, or a chronic low performer in the same role. Who would you take?

You don’t have to answer – you do every day. You take the low performer. “Well, do you want us to keep the thief?” No, but I’m wondering if great performance can be rehabbed?

I know chronic low performance can’t. My guess is good/great probably can. Just a thought.

So, why do you have chronic low performers? It’s not that you allow it. It’s because you just found out what they are really good at!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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