Engineering Talent Management — Knowing When it’s Time to Fire a Poor Performer


Anyone who has managed employees in an office environment has had to deal with a less-than-stellar performer from time to time. But when is enough enough? How do you decide that it’s time to pull the plug, especially with a hard-to-replace engineer or specialist.

There are a number of factors that may be cause for termination, and you should always be sure to work closely with your HR team (or the relevant individual if you’re a small business) to make sure you’re following proper company policy and procedure.



There are a variety of reasons why you might be unhappy with an employee. It’s important to examine your reasons carefully, and to be honest with yourself about what it is that isn’t working. Some of these reasons may include:

  • Job Fit: The person is unsuited for their current role. This may have to do with educational background, interests, strengths and weaknesses, etc.
  • Productivity Problems: The individual can do the work, but can’t do enough of it or get it done quickly enough to meet the needs of the organization
  • Knowledge/Skills Gaps: They lack specific knowledge or skills which are needed to do an effective job in the role. This may involve not keeping up with emerging tools and technologies that are key to the role
  • Interpersonal Problems: The person has difficulty working with others or taking direction from supervisors
  • Morale Problems: The individual is not motivated to perform in the job, and may also be causing similar morale problems among other employees in the group
  • Cultural Fit: The person isn’t a good fit for the group or company culture

All of these concerns can be grounds for firing, depending on the seriousness and longevity of the problem. A good first task is to assess whether the problems are related to (a) ability, or (b) motivation/willingness.


While certain instances may warrant immediate termination (e.g. a workplace violence or sexual harassment incident), in most cases there is a dissatisfaction with the employee’s attitude or performance that goes on over a period of time. In these situations, open communication with the employee is key.

The goal of communicating with the employee is to let him or her know that there is a perceived problem, and to learn more about what the circumstances behind the problem might be. This gives you a chance to better understand the employee’s side of the story, and to begin to look for solutions together. When the employee understands clearly that a problem exists, and that you are willing to work with him or her to solve it, that will often be enough to start things moving in a better direction.

Be sure to outline what your concerns are, and what your expectations are for improvements. Targeted changes should follow the popular SMART model: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This will ensure that there is no confusion.

In a market environment where great engineers are hard to come by and even harder to keep, open communication with employees who are having trouble on the job may be the one thing that saves you from inadvertently losing one.

Again, you should partner with HR to ensure that you’re following company policy in how you communicate and document your concerns.



Usually good communication and a clear, documented plan of expected outcomes is enough to resolve most situations. But sometimes that’s not enough, and the problem continues. This generally happens when the employee is either unable or unwilling to resolve your concerns.

By this time, if the above steps have been followed, the writing will be on the wall and most organizations will say goodbye.

At this point, the question to ask is: Did this not work out because the employee was unable (lacked skill) or unwilling (lacked motivation) to change? While skill can sometimes be addressed, motivation on the other hand is difficult.



Often, poor motivation is due to a lack of fit with the company or team culture. In a related post, we looked at some of the variables involved in organizational cultures, including Size & Structure, Work-Life Balance, Formality, Communication Style, Teamwork Style, Stability vs. Risk, and Success.

Should every team member have to “fit in” or “conform” with the company culture? Yes and no. Maverick thinking—seeing things differently—can be very useful in a team environment. On the other hand, if values and goals of the individual are out of sync with those of the organization, then a host of (de-motivating) problems are bound to emerge.Avoiding the Termination Situation

The decision to fire one of your valued engineers is always a difficult one. Nobody wants to negatively impact another person’s livelihood. And with engineers in high demand in today’s market, it can be hard to find a strong replacement. But ultimately, such considerations shouldn’t make you feel like you need to keep someone who simply isn’t performing, or who is having a detrimental impact on your team’s morale and productivity.

Communicate well and document your expectations, then make the decision an objective one. But remember that the best strategy for avoiding turnover is to hire the right talent. We believe this so strongly, we created Enginuity Virtual Recruiter to help recruiters and hiring managers cost-effectively find and hire engineers based on culture-fit.