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Are Your Employees Capable of and Willing to Do the Job? For most employers, deciding whether or not to fire an employee is the toughest call they make.

By Doug and Polly White Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


We find that for most employers, deciding whether or not to fire an employee is the toughest call they make. Often, we see our clients agonize over termination decisions, and rightfully so.

Related: How to Transform Difficult Employees Into Team Players

While a termination may be the best course for the company and ultimately the employee, this action will cause the employee initial pain and disrupt the organization in the short term.

It also has legal implications for the company. Employers should make the choice to terminate only after thoughtful consideration, but they should not drag out the decision. If an employee isn't performing, an employer should first try to help him or her improve. However, if those efforts fail, the next step is to explore whether or the employee is capable of, or willing, to do the job.

We are coming to the end of our series on increasing employee effectiveness. Recently, we have explored the first four reasons why employees may not execute to their full potential the instructions issued by you, their employer. (Links to those articles follow.)

If you have determined that 1) The employee understands the objective; 2) There are no roadblocks (internal to the company) keeping the employee from performing; 3) The employee is sufficiently trained, and 4) You have given the employee proper motivation -- "incapable and/or unwilling" is the only other conclusion.

Sometimes, though, the employee may not be physically capable of doing the work. Perhaps the job requires stacking 35-pound boxes onto pallets or swinging a framing hammer for seven or more hours each day. Not everyone is physically capable of performing such strenuous manual tasks for extended intervals.

Physical capability also pertains to the ability to concentrate and stay focused for long periods. Air traffic controllers, security guards and workers who enter or review data, write computer code and perform many other jobs will encounter this requirement. We worked with an employer who found that his accountant was incapable of focusing on her work. Indeed, she spent hours each day chatting and gossiping with other employees, friends, clients or anyone else who would listen. Obviously, her detail-critical work suffered.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Firing an Employee

Cognition is another issue. Sometimes, an employee is not cognitively capable of doing the work. Certain jobs have an intellectual component that not everyone can reach. Not everyone is blessed with the same level of quantitative and analytical horsepower that actuaries, analysts, researchers and other positions require.

Doug handles complex math and analytic problems for our clients with ease. I, Polly, lack those abilities -- my strengths lie elsewhere. If you find that you hire employees who subsequently are not capable of doing the job (either mentally or physically), you should review your hiring procedure and assessment tools.

In other cases, the employee may be capable of doing the work, but for whatever reason, not be willing to do the work. This can be the most frustrating situation for managers. You know the person can do the work, and he or she promises to perform better, yet, continues to come up short.

If you can answer "yes" to the four points above, and you know that your employee is physically and mentally capable of doing the work, you must conclude that he/she is not willing to do the work.

At this point you have two choices: 1) transfer the employee to a job in which he or she can be successful or, 2) terminate the employee. This is a tough choice and one that is repeatedly made badly, according to what we've seen. Most managers want to do right by their employees and don't want to see people lose their jobs. But this desire to be the "good guy" often comes back to bite the manager later. As we learned early in our careers, no good deed goes unpunished.

In our experience, if the employee is not willing, changing his or her position within the company will not make a difference. The choice is clear. However, if the employee has tried very hard, but is not capable of doing the job for which you hired him or her, you may look within your organization to find a more suitable position. Use this option with caution, however.

Be sure that the employee's only issue was physical or cognitive capability and that the job you are moving this person to will be in line with his or her skill set. If not, you are setting yourself and your organization up for a long period of heartache. It is better to fire the employee and let him or her find other employment rather than prolong the mutual suffering.

In sum, managers can greatly influence the success of their employees. They can ensure that employees have clear instructions, are free of roadblocks and are trained and motivated to succeed. However, if you find your employee is either incapable or unwilling, you can't fix the situation.

Related: How to Discipline and Fire Employees

Just make sure you have done your part. Then, be willing to make the tough decision. You, your organization and the employee will be better for it.

Doug and Polly White own Whitestone Partners Inc., a management-consulting firm that specializes in helping small businesses grow profitably. They are also co-authors of Let Go to GROW, a bestselling book on why some businesses thrive and others fail to reach their potential.

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