The founder’s dilemma – what do you do with the hardworking but incompetent employee?

The hardest thing about running a startup is dealing with people. Even though coding and designing your product maybe much more technically challenging, most finders usually do not find this a hassle, because it’s something which they enjoy because they are good at doing it . It’s usually mastering the softer skills – dealing with people (your investors , co-founders and your employees ) – which is what makes running a startup so hard. While some people are naturally good at it, most of us aren’t , and while we all have some people skills, we often make a big mess of this .

This is specially true when you need to hire and fire employees.

As a startup, you have a small team, each of whom has a critically important role to play . Because this is usually the first time you need to manage someone else, you don’t have much experience in deciding whom to employ and what criteria to use. Time is usually a huge constraint , because there is so much work to do , and because you have a limited budget, you are quite happy to take anyone who is willing to work with you .

Most founders take the approach that beggars can’t be choosers, and if they find someone who is happy to join them, they welcome him with open arms. The hope is that let’s just go ahead and get him on the team , and we’ll teach him on the job . Most founders are fed up of dealing with people who apply for the job and never bother to turn up ; or who leave after a few weeks simply because someone else gives them a marginally higher salary that they are happy to hang on to anyone who agrees to sign up.

Most founders think, “All I need is warm bodies in order to get my startup up and running.” They often end up employing people out of a sense of desperation , but this can come back to haunt them later on. Thus, not having a head of sales can be frustrating, because you have to do the job yourself, and this sucks up a lot of your time and energy. However, having the wrong person in that role can be far more expensive !

However, this is wisdom which dawns on you slowly. You may not even realise he is a misfit because your employee will always have a ready excuse for why he has failed to deliver as promised. He will blame the limited budget or the competition, but when you finally do figure out that he is the wrong person for the job , you are reluctant to fire him, because terminating someone is very hard to do .

No one likes unpleasantness and therefore you try to put it off . You hope that with training and guidance he will improve , but when this doesn’t happen, you are in a quandary. Your first response is to try to push him into an alternative role – one which is more suited for him. Because you don’t have the courage to fire him , sometimes you create a role in the company for him , but this send up becoming a drain on your limited resources. It can be heartbreaking to let someone go, but you don’t have the luxury of trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

Sometimes it’s kinder to fire him – not just for the company , but for him as well. After all , if you are not happy with him, imagine how miserable he must be, knowing that he is not being able to deliver.

This can be emotionally traumatic , especially when you can see that he is doing his best to perform, but just doesn’t have the skills to deliver. He may be very hard working , but is so incompetent that you cannot continue to ignore his limitations. Checking and counter-checking his work ends up draining your time and energy – and you really don’t have the luxury of being able to supervise him and correct his errors. Rather than reducing your work-load, he increases your burden. Because you cannot trust that he will do his job efficiently, you need to micro-manage him ,and this drags down your personal productivity.

Unfortunately , you can identify these deficiencies only after he has been working in your company for sometimes. However, the longer you allow the problem to fester, the worse it becomes . Sometimes you so need to be ruthless , and this is part of the job description of being a founder.

The incompetent employee is bad not just for the company, but for the other employees as well.

He is seen to be a deadweight who is not contributing , and they resent that they are being forced to do his work . He becomes a bottleneck who holds everyone up and starts having a toxic influence on the morale of the company.

It’s cheaper and easier in the long run to let him go. You may worry that firing him will hurt the morale of the rest of the team, but most people are happy to see an under-performer leave, as no one likes working with incompetent people. You don’t need to cruel about this , and if they can see that you have done your best to help him find another job, they will be quite willing to accept your decision. In fact, some of them may say that this is something you should have done much earlier !

Is it possible to prevent this problem ? As you get more experienced and build up your team, you will get better at learning how to judge people, but this is always a challenge, and there are no easy solutions.

You will learn that the right employee is worth their weight in gold, but a misfit can take your company down. Learn to hire slowly – hiring the wrong person can prove to be an expensive mistake !

[Dr Malpani is Director and Values Custodian at Solidarity Advisors.]

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