Terrible Reasons For Hanging On To A Poor Performer In Retail

Terrible Reasons For Hanging On To A Poor Performer In Retail

I have shared this in a previous article I have written, but back many years ago I stepped into a role with a very challenging business. The team was severely under-developed. The region’s business metrics were ranked in the bottom 2% [yep…the bottom 2%] across all business levers. It was not pretty. I was traveling with my boss one day, immediately after taking on the role, and we were talking about the business and my plan of action and I was asking him questions about my predecessor trying to understand the team and what, potentially, I would have to counter to what they learned/experienced. One of the questions I asked was how long the person I replaced had been there since they were so terrible. 24 years was the answer…but she’d admitted to “checking out” two years before they finally separated with her.  What? Huh?

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with a VP of Stores for a national retail organization who is struggling a little bit with their District Manager level employees. Out of 25 Districts:

  • Only 11 Districts are producing positive comps to LY only 8 Districts are producing results to their Plan
  • Only 10 Districts are fully staffed and three are severely under-staffed
  • Only 4 Districts show engagement over 70%

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I asked what the average tenure of the District Managers is: 3 years. In the poorest performing Districts the tenure is 6+ years. Wait…What? I asked questions around training and development as well as the growth opportunities afforded to the District Managers. What their Regional Managers role looks like? Who were the most recent hires? What their PA’s looked like for their teams? The average length in position was 2.2 years – 100% external hires. We had a great dialog about change and some ideas that will have an immediate impact for the business and the team. But…

These issues really got me thinking about why retail organizations insist on hanging onto poor performers. Retailers are dropping like flies and because organizations aren’t compelled through performance guidance, training/development, or career path opportunities that all levels of team members deliver greatness – it’s just not happening. Why? No question, letting people go is a painful experience for everybody. And the hyper-litigious society with live in doesn’t make things any easier [just read Eric Meyers, The Employer Handbook Blog] but, clearly, retailers cannot continue with this same process and accept under-performers to take up space in their organization and negatively impact their brand and their future outlook.

Times are precarious – retail organizations just can’t afford to hang on to workers who aren’t delivering results. Those people drag down productivity, brand image, destroy morale, drive out your top performers, and make it impossible to capture top talent in the market. It begs the question, why are some organizations so reticent about separating these employees? The following is a sampling of the wacky rationalizations supervisors use to avoid taking action — and why those arguments are simply weak excuses:

Most Common Reasons In Retail

Let’s cross our fingers and maybe they’ll improve: Hand’s down, this is the most common reason I hear from senior and executive level retailers. If you want to ensure your area of responsibility absolutely doesn’t improve – make sure you implement the always losing ‘strategy of hope’ – if your employee was going to improve, wouldn’t they have done so before things got this far? Seeing themselves on the bottom of every retail report weekly and quarterly? Seeing open positions and time to fill exceed that of their business partners or of reasonable business practices? Having endless calls with HR because of communication issues with their team? If the proper developmental guidance and coaching steps have been taken and standards still aren’t being met, it’s time to take action.

Love the one you’re with: This is a common challenge around holiday time and I have heard it ad nauseum in retail. This is for the people who fail to take reasonable action with under-performers or toxic employees during the year to buy themselves an additional few month of not sourcing talent (because terrible leaders cannot source great talent – they are lucky if they can possibly source “good enough” talent). People that don’t know what right looks like are the ones you will hear this from most often. This fails because it is usually heard at the most critical times in the business – which is disaster for the customer experience, for the business metrics, and for the team.

This could get ugly. What if they cry or become physical?: This is one I hear a lot as well. While this may be a legitimate concern if you have not been coaching or communicating with the employee, it’s certainly not a reason to delay termination. On the contrary, it’s a reason to get it over with and avoid prolonging the problems. Most of these concerns stem from the leader’s inability to provide – and discomfort with – performance guidance. There should absolutely be no surprises to employees when it comes to their performance, good or bad. Most emotion stems from the surprise of the event. People usually know when they aren’t fulfilling their duties, meeting their objectives, or if they have violated policies – if you are giving immediate, in-the-moment feedback [and following up poor performance with correct documentation] – there will be no surprises and a small concern for outbursts of emotion.

Less Common But Often Used Excuses

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But they have flashes of brilliance, interspersed with being an exhausting drain the majority of the time:  So leaders keep changing their mind about the value of this person to the team and using that as a reason to excuse their inaction.

I am afraid to lose a person doing some work: Even if they’re not the best. We all know that people take 70% of their knowledge with them when they leave a company – but 70% of terrible results and inability to drive action is perfectly okay to lose…really.

Who will take over?: Start recruiting early and often if you are concerned about this.

It’s hard. It’s not fun. I hate interviewing. The applicants we get are the worst!: These are all reasons I have heard and they are totally terrible. Of course it’s not fun to have to manage performance but our job, as retail leaders, is to build career capital of our employees, to ensure delivery of an outstanding customer experience that builds brand loyalty, and to drive results over expectation in all areas of the business…that’s our job. If we are failing our employees by not helping them achieve greatness and they lack the ambition to deliver on their own, what is the alternative? Building a great culture will result in your employees being your advocates…when employees enjoy their job and their boss and they are consistently recognized for performance and developed…they will help their company find people that are well suited for the culture and the role. Being a leader who delivers greatness you will have a pool of truly amazing talent available to you. Retail Leadership is hard..it’s hard every day and it is a challenge but that is the great part about our industry. Great leaders are energized by the business and the day-to-day challenges. Bad leaders and organizations that are  destined to fail – find excuses like these.

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At any given time there are a handful of candidates in the marketplace who will deliver excellence to your organization, your employees, your culture, and your customer. Letting terrible employees “get away with” terrible performance sends a terrible message to your top employees who work hard each day to deliver results that not only that make their area of responsibility excel but trying to help offset the poor performers results.

Research shows that the overall team performance is defined by the lowest performer, not the highest performer. Take for example, the NPR This American Life prologue, where a researcher had an actor to join a work team and act like a typical toxic coworker and the rest of the team followed. Human behavior is so interesting. I had the great opportunity during Disney Leadership training when I worked at Disneyland to take on this negative role in a training course as well and it was amazing how influential and persuasive negative behavior can be [especially if it is perceived as being endorsed by the senior and executive leaders of the retail organization through their inaction].

According to a McKinsey study, 59% of employees would be “delighted” if managers dealt with problem employees, but only 7% of those responding to employee surveys believed their companies were actually doing it.

Objectively, we do cater to the lowest common denominator in retail and we create parental and condescending processes and policies that attempt to drive performance standards to those that deliver results that are “good enough” or “meets expectation”. It’s time for a new strategy that drives innovation, high-level performance, and supports the top contributors to the business. This starts with cutting ties with the dead weight in the business and using creativity and collaboration to drive a positive and successful culture. Until that happens we are unlikely to elevate where we currently stand in the industry.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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21 thoughts on “Terrible Reasons For Hanging On To A Poor Performer In Retail

  1. by changing some terminology due to industry labels, this permeates throughout our business environment. the hard part is not recognizing the issue, it is the hardship that changing out a person creates, the potential attitudes left behind and the results that continue to lag even after a person is removed.

    Here is the best scenarios; accept the pain coming, let the scab heal, listen to your work force and don’t let a bad situation fester. trust me, it seldom gets better.

    1. Absolutely agree! The challenges have to be dealt with – not doing so only makes it worse and it kills morale along the way. Thank you so much for your comment! Enjoy your weekend!

  2. Great read.
    I’ll really dig deeper to uncover the real reason for wanting to hold onto employees.
    This article taught me a lot.
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, Lisa! I am so glad you found this article useful! Enjoy your week and thank you so much for taking the time to leave your thoughts – I really appreciate it!

  3. Well done, nicely put, good read. Sometimes, for managers in retail, the ‘too hard basket’ can get very full when dealing with poor performers.

  4. All great points. I would add, as you have indicated, under-performers affect employee motivation which will trickle down to customer perception of the business and that has a very direct result on the bottom line.

  5. If these were the reasons a supervisor or manager gave me for holding on to someone, I would seriously question their supervisory or management skills!

    1. Unfortunately, Debbie – not only have I heard Managers and Supervisors say these things but I have heard Retail VP’s use these “reasons” for keep under-performers around. It happens, frequently, in retail. Definitely an opportunity area.

  6. Excellent information and spot on to my experiences as well. Some of the challenges retailers have is being ” relaters”. We build relationships, both with customers and other associates. When this happens our vision becomes a little blurry and we struggle knowing when it’s time to end the relationship. We become too vesting personally. While building relationships may be the foundation of great customer service it can at times be the foundation for poor performance.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment – you are absolutely right, Justine! When we stop being objective with our team members – we lose the ability to lead and provide guidance and growth opportunity for them.

  7. This is so true. I just left a big retail giant because the upper management had no direction going & kept plus allowed the dead weight employees to keep going about their business & didn’t seem to care much. Plus the micro managing was terrible!! I now work for a locally owned Christian family business & although I may work a little bit harder it’s nice being appreciated plus having management & employees who actually care!!

  8. When you do take action, my experience has been that everyone else improves, and usually the response from other associates is “why did you take so long”. Great post.

  9. Great article Beth. Another common ineffective step some leaders embrace as a solution is to continue to transfer and move under performers from their struggling location and putting them in a flourishing location without addressing the dysfunction with the HOPE that the problem will go away. Granted there are times where business volume can be a factor and sometimes a fresh start can provoke greatness and rekindle excellence however this is rare. The negative impact of poor leadership is like the cancer disease and symptoms are not always visible until late into the game and when extensive damage has occurred from the inside out. Albert Einstein put it best, the definition of insanity – “doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” Transferring and moving a problem has a double negative impact both on the team receiving the problem as well as the risk associated with burning out top performers who consistently play the role of “clean up” crew aka FEMA while the pepatrators go free without accountability, the ultimate morale killer. I have seen great success in grabbing the bull by the horns & addressing problems right where they exist. Providing support & resources while working in concert with a thorough gap analysis and most of all transparency on observations and diagnosis, letting on know where they stand and inevitable consequences should change not occur. What this does ultimately is give a good leader the peace of mind that if performance doesn’t turn around, you as an organization have done everything in your power and realm of influence to salvage the situation. Like the favorite saying goes, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then perhaps … (Fill in the blank)

  10. Great article Beth
    Almost all of us have bosses, we have seen this time and again and that is usually our frame of reference, “is this happening to me”. Many of us are also bosses ourselves and while we see this behavior in our boss we have to look in the mirror too, most of us hold both perspectives but most quickly sympathize with the one that is affecting us directly vs how we affect our teams.

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