4 Signs It's Time to Let That High-Potential Employee Go

Warning signs to watch for include an employee who feels entitled or just won't learn.
4 Signs It's Time to Let That High-Potential Employee Go
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There’s nothing more exciting than finding an employee with high potential. Leaders spot such talent and lay out these individuals' path to greatness. But things don’t always work out that way.

Related: Have to Terminate an Employee? Here Are 5 Best Practices

In fact, a March VitalSmarts survey of more than 1,000 managers and employees found that 70 percent of managers surveyed had at least one high-potential employee they were considering firing because of poor performance.

This becomes a problem when leaders are unable to let go of unrealized talent. They continue to hope the employee will improve. But, in the process, employers just waste company resources and time.

There comes a point when leaders have to realize it’s time to let underperforming, high-potential employees go. Do you know when that is?

When the employee just won’t learn

High-potential employees still have room to grow and develop. They’re going to make mistakes. But, when they refuse to learn from those missteps, that’s when there’s a problem.

David Maxfield, the vice president of research at the Salt Lake City-based leadership training company VitalSmarts, said that one of the best rules of thumb is to terminate for won’t, not can’t. “All of us have areas where we need to skill-up,” Maxfield said via email. “The goal is to be honest about these shortcomings, and then give people time and opportunities to remedy them.”

When an employee fails to even put out an effort, that’s when it’s time to accept that he or she won’t meet that high potential.

Related: How to Terminate an Employee With an 'Irreplaceable' Skill

To gauge an employee’s willingness to try to learn, give hard deadlines. Let the employee know the deadline for completing a training course or reaching a goal. Be clear about what’s at stake and what the expectations are. This will show whether an employee will step up to the plate or continue to coast.

When he or she has a sense of entitlement

Often, the problem with a high-potential employee is not being used to receiving critical feedback. This person has done so well in his or her previous role that when the new role results in missteps, the person doesn't know how to react. The employee believes he or she can do no wrong and is therefore resistant to feedback that says otherwise.

“I have seen some great talent who don’t make it because they have a working style that is abrasive, or they may have some derailing behaviors that show a lack of humbleness,” Agnes Garaba, head of HR at the Vancouver, Canada, office of the software company SAP, said by email.

Once an employee has an entitled attitude, it’s hard to give feedback. However, leaders can avoid this by making sure all employees receive constant input about their performance from the moment they join the company.

Make sure managers aren’t inflating the ego of high-potential employees. All employees have room to improve, and if they’re not used to hearing about their flaws, they won’t adapt when the time comes to take on more responsibility.

When the employee doesn't opt in

Established leaders label employees as having high potential. They observe their performance and decide the employee is destined for greater things. But that doesn’t take into consideration the wants of the individual.

For instance, an employee may be in a role where he or she is happy and successful. As a result, a promotion with more responsibilities comes along. Then, even if the new job doesn’t fulfill this employee, he or she will accept it for the prestige or pay increase.

Eventually, there'll be disengagement and some measure of failure. For the manager -- short of demoting the individual -- the only choice will be termination.

This is why Laura Butler, the senior vice president of people and culture at the Salt Lake City-based project-management platform, Workfront, suggested having employees opt-in to a development program. When employees have to make the choice to work to their full potential, they’re more invested in their journey.

Treat employee development like a hiring process. Instead of just giving employees a promotion, have them explain why they want to take the next step. Encourage them to speak with leaders about their ambition and how they plan to prove themselves. This extra effort will weed out employees who aren’t going to work to improve.

When he or she goes it alone

High-potential employees are typically very self-reliant. Since they can do most tasks themselves, they don’t seek assistance or perspective from others. Unfortunately, when they’re put in a new role, they often resist collaboration.

For example, Linda Adams, a partner of Denver-based teamwork consultancy, The Trispective Group, once had an employee who excelled in his original role. He learned the ins and outs of the organization very quickly, she said. But when he was promoted, and a new employee was hired for his old role, he felt threatened.

“He was a talented individual who worked really well either on his own or with a group where he was clearly the rock star,” Adams said in an email. “When another rock star came into his orbit, he wasn’t able to step back and let someone else bring forward their talent.”

Avoid this situation at your workplace by paying attention to employees’ collaboration skills. While it’s important to recognize an individual’s successes, make sure he or she isn't fighting every battle alone.

Related: 6 Ways to Reinvigorate Your Team After Firing an Employee

Early on, provide feedback to the employee about the importance of teamwork. This way your talented employee can break the habit of needing to accomplish everything alone.

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