I have had the opportunity during my career to teach courses on management and leadership. Without exception, every time I teach a course, there will be one or more students who lament about the poor quality of his/her subordinates. The subordinates are generally long-term employees but occasionally are recent hires. The student wants to know how to “fix” the subordinates. Will training work? What about progressive discipline? Should I reassign him/her?

It is clear that when we find an employee who is not performing acceptably, we need to act to correct performance. After all, that is what some of us were hired to do. When I dig a little deeper, I find this is not an isolated incident of a few rogue employees, but an almost circular occurrence of one employee after another. This takes significant time from the supervisor and drains positive energy from a significant segment of the workforce. The supervisor may tell me success stories in which he/she was able to terminate or retrain a substandard employee. Affirmative action to correct performance is a good thing.

Unfortunately, we do not examine the most important issue: Did you hire a substandard employee or did you create one? Let me be clear, those are absolutely the only two possibilities. Failing to examine this reality is dooming the organization to perpetually revisiting the address of underperforming employees. We all want to believe that our hiring processes are sufficiently discriminating. If that is true (big if), we hired a person capable of acceptable performance. How then did we end up with this poor performing employee?

We must examine the culture of the organization, the effectiveness of supervision, and the merit of our evaluative processes to determine where they failed. If we did not create this substandard employee, then we hired him/her. We must examine the hiring processes and the pool of potential employees we draw from to determine how it failed to yield an acceptable employee.

When the fire department responds to a fire, they promptly put it out. Next, they try to determine what caused the fire so future events might be avoided. Your underperforming employee is analogous to the fire and you have to respond to it. Now, determine what caused the fire!