Poor performers and protected groups add up to management challenge

When terminating an underperforming employee in a protected group, managers must remain consistent in their practices

Dear Bob ...

I sure wish I knew a more delicate way to put this question to you. I don't, and I sure need help with a very challenging situation.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Even in these modern times, sexist attitudes can be found in some IT shops | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

One of my developers -- let's call her "Jerrie" -- is a terrible programmer. She's also African American.

I've tried everything I can think of to help her improve her skills, and it isn't working. She just doesn't have the aptitude. Some people have it. She isn't one of them. Please don't misunderstand. She's a terrific person, and I am just self-aware enough to make sure I don't confuse poor performance with poor character. She wants to succeed. She just can't.

It's affecting morale. Everyone else on the team knows they're carrying her, and they're starting to complain about it. One or two have made remarks I consider overtly racial and sexist. ("If she weren't black and a woman you'd have fired her a long time ago.") I've shut them down cold -- that sort of thing can get out of hand quickly, and once it does I know my ability to handle things constructively will be at an end.

So far I've managed to keep a lid on the situation, telling everyone to concentrate on their own performance instead of on their colleague, but I know it's wearing thin.

HR hasn't been any help. They've used code words, of course, but their basic message is that Jerrie is a member of two protected classes, so there's nothing they or I can do without putting the company at risk.

Do you have any thoughts on how to handle this?

- Stuck

Dear Stuck ...

Before I dig into your situation, let me first thank you for not playing the reverse-racism card. You aren't the first manager to face this situation and won't be the last. Many complain about reverse racism (it appears some of your employees are among them), which would be more acceptable if they were as sensitive to the racism and sexism that still exist in many workplaces.

I'm going to avoid walking you through how this should happen, which is that you objectively document Jerrie's performance, going through the standard procedure of verbal and written warnings, and so on. It is how it should happen, but without HR's support there's no point in trying.

I'm going to take you at your word that Jerrie wants to succeed. That being the case, I think your best course of action is to expand your horizons, and hers, in figuring out what it will take for her to get ahead. Have an honest -- and emphatic -- conversation about the prospects for succeeding in her current role, tell her she deserves to have a job in which she is able to make a stronger contribution, and offer to help her get it.

As you say, not everyone has the aptitude for programming. That doesn't mean she has no aptitudes of any kind -- so become her career coach. Help her think through the "three circles" exercise. I've mentioned it before: It's a Venn diagram where the overlapping circles will be what Jerrie is good at (or has the aptitude to become good at), what she enjoys doing, and what a business will be willing to pay for. What lies in the intersection is where she'll have a great career.

Recommend that she contact HR to ask for additional help. There are companies that specialize in this sort of assessment, which can help her get a better handle on what kinds of roles she'll find most compatible. HR won't help you terminate her for nonperformance, so they should be willing to help you help her leave under her own power for a better opportunity.

As you, Jerrie, and HR are figuring this all out, try to craft a role for her in your organization that takes her out of development while giving her credentials she can add to her resume when she's ready to find the right opportunity. You might, for example, figure out a way for her to contribute by organizing contracts and other business office matters, coordinating internal user groups, or -- I don't know exactly. It's your department, so you know what else you need.

While all of this is going on, bring your own manager into the loop. In addition to protecting yourself from a perception that your team isn't as productive as it should be, your manager might have just the role for Jerrie to try.

And if not, you still want your manager to know about this. It's going to take enough of your time and energy that it's an appropriate thing to do. Beyond this, there's a strong chance one of your employees will take advantage of your manager's open-door policy to escalate their complaints. You want to make sure you get there first.

Finally, make sure you document everything. No matter how well you handle this, there's still a possibility it will blow up in your face. Your documentation can make the difference between everyone understanding you were making the best of a difficult situation and your being the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong.

Good luck.

- Bob

This story, "Poor performers and protected groups add up to management challenge," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.