ScratchResearch from the Harvard Business Review found that a company’s success is not only dependent on the careful management of A and B performers: it also depends on how effectively C players (defined for our purposes as “the bottom 20 percent of performers”) are pruned.  Its clear that C players should shape up or ship out — that is, they need to be energized, re-energized, or fired.

Even though we know what we must do with C players, it seems that not all companies are good are actually turning this knowledge into action. The HBR study found that high-performing companies are 33 percent more likely to take deliberate action on C performers than average-performing organizations are.

In many countries across Europe — such as the U.K., France, and Germany — there are strict employment laws and procedures surrounding the dismissal of C players, and these can act as obstacles to dismissing under-performing employees. It is understandable, then, that all this red tape may make it hard for employers in these countries to effectively prune C players.

But why does the problem of dealing with c players efficiently still persist in the U.S., where it is considerably easier to fire staff thanks to the “fire-at-will” doctrine that is prevalent across the nation? The HBR findings explain this phenomenon, showing that the main reasons why employers don’t efficiently dismiss c players is emotional: even though many U.S. managers can fire at will, they are unwilling to fire people whom they may consider friends, or whom they have worked with for a long time, or whom are fallen stars. Their objectivity becomes clouded.

So, how can employers handle this emotional resistance and deal with C players? Of course, every individual situation is different, but I think that one of the universally effective approaches might be to avoid the proverbial blunt instrument; instead, employers can take a more sophisticated approach, one that gives the C player options and a sense of control over their destiny. Hopefully, doing this would make the situation less emotionally charged and fatalistic.

Now, what kind of options can employers give C players? For starters, there is the option to “improve,” which means setting improvement goals and a deadline for reaching them. However, putting a C player in a situation in which they must face their shortcomings can damage their pride, making this option emotionally troubling. There is also the C player’s fear of failing to meet their improvement goals, which may interfere with their ability to improve.

That’s why this option can — and should — be combined with the more palatable option of a transfer to another level or department. Evidence suggests that C players can become more productive if given the chance to sidle into a role that better suits their talents. For example, employers can offer C players “inverse promotions – yes, that’s a demotion by another name — back down to the last level in which they were effective, allowing them to flourish once again.

Of course, the “inverse promotion” may still damage the C player’s pride, and that’s why employers should also offer them the third option of resigning quietly with a good reference and whatever termination payment is appropriate and/or required by law. Not having a “dismissal” on one’s employment record is a very valuable thing. (Before employers take this route, they should be sure to investigate the possible legal ramifications.)

Try to be flexible with these options. For example, if the the C player takes the improvement option, but realize halfway through the review period that they cannot meet their goals, allow them to choose one of the other options instead.

I believe that this is a practical, efficient, effective, and sensitive way of dealing with C players. If adopted, it can help to raise the performance levels of any organization overall.

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