When you should invest – and when you should fire – a worker

A reader asks: “Why do employers seem so quick to fire employees rather than working hard to improve their performance?”

We see every style of management. Some are very quick to make these firing decisions. I believe even more employers show too much patience (inaction) in resolving poor performance.

It seems the Quick and Slow groups have something in common: Employees receive little time or support from managers to improve performance.

“Hire slow and fire quick” is an old saying in HR. If you take the time needed to create the role properly and find the best fit, performance will be good. If not, cure the occasional mistake quickly and move on.

Things are just not that simple. Few new hires have everything needed to succeed. Many bring some sort of blind spot or skill gap, either at hire or as things progress. How can an employer decide when to invest in an employee and when to divest a poor performer? Consider two things: attitude and aptitude.


“Attitude” is a useful way to describe the desire to learn, flexibility, openness to coaching, wanting to win, working well with others and such. A great attitude will not replace poor skills or lack of experience. But a great attitude makes it more likely those skills can be learned with reasonable effort and expense.

How wonderful is a performance meeting with a great attitude employee? They own it. They ask good questions. They point out where the company could support them better. They are adults capable of an adult conversation without making it personal.

Attitude can be hard to assess in hiring. There are ways, but a smart applicant might mask their true self. Poor performance caused by a bad attitude is hard to cure. Changing a person’s attitude in meaningful ways can happen, but both employee and manager must want it to happen.


A talented and experienced employee with the capacity for this role (and future roles) has high aptitude. They can do the job with or without additional training. Pre-hire aptitude can be assessed from past experiences, good interviews, testing, demonstrations, work samples and the like. The intangible kinds of aptitude, and how attitude affects aptitude, are harder to assess.

Different roles require different levels and types of aptitude, of course. Generally, aptitude can be taught and role-modeled into higher performance if the capacity to learn is strong. Improving aptitude is usually more rewarding than curing attitude.

When deciding how much mental energy, time, money and patience to invest in a poor performing employee, think about the intersection of attitude and aptitude in a four-box matrix. Low attitude/low aptitude is usually a bad use of management energy. High/high are your best employees and deserve your time, mentoring and encouragement. Where either attitude or aptitude are low (but the other is high), the needs of the role, the culture of the organization and available salary budgets can guide the decision to invest or divest.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit