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.
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?
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.