How to Help an Employee Fail

An employer’s handbook in six easy steps

Rarely does an employer set out to cause an employee to fail. Yet frequently actions that employers take, with every good intention, do just that. Here’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek listing of the well-intentioned path to employee failure:

Step 1 - When hiring, seek out a person who will solve all your problems

Look for the ways in which they have the right experience and credentials to fix as many things as possible in your business. Try to achieve a “no-brainer” deal – one where it would be stupid NOT to hire this person (especially financially). During this step, express your excitement and interest to the prospective employee and others.

The employee’s perspective – “Wow! The perfect job. I’ve always wanted to work somewhere where my skills can make a big difference. And a great boss to work with, too!”

Step 2 - Once hired, turn over all responsibility to the new employee

Pat yourself on the back that you made a brilliant decision for the business, and be sure to express your confidence in the employee early and continuously.

The employee’s perspective – “I am trusted and valued here. This is truly a place where I can make a significant impact. I want to work hard and help my boss succeed.”

Step 3 - Remain very positive and hopeful as the employee begins working

Whenever you see things that concern you, mentally brush them under the rug as this person is just getting started and is, after all, really good at what they do. Remind yourself that your decision to hire this person was the right thing.

The employee’s perspective – “This is good work. I am making a difference.”

Step 4 - As concerns mount, begin doubting your decision

Express your concerns to others and listen for information that might justify those concerns. Continue to praise the employee in a general way as not to be discouraging.

The employee’s perspective – “Things are feeling different. I’d better do more of what I think I’m good at.”

Step 5 - Validate your concerns and yet allow the employee a chance to self-correct

Gather evidence by speaking with others and looking for ways in which the employee has failed and continues to fail to meet your expectations. Withdraw praise and begin to express dissatisfaction about specific elements of the job.

The employee’s perspective – “Gosh. I thought I was doing ok. I can tell the boss is unhappy, yet I don’t know what specifically I should do differently. This doesn’t feel good.”

Step 6 - Confront the employee with the facts

Present the facts of your missed expectations and other people’s corroborating opinions. Hear what the employee has to say, yet be firm in your resolve that this is the employee’s problem.

The employee’s perspective – “I am in a no-win situation. I can either argue my perspective and anger the boss further, I can try to stay here in something that will probably not work out in the long run, or I can quit. This is terrible. How did I get into this mess?”

Missed opportunities

Having clear, realistic, and direct communication with employees can enable you both to have joint understanding about what it takes to succeed. Discussing specific concerns as they arise with the employee allows for a joint plan to be created and followed-up on so you and the employee can take actions to get back on track together.

Actions you can take today

  1. Examine both your intentions and your actions around your employees. Give yourself credit for having the right intentions. Then look at your actions – could you be setting your employees up for failure?
  2. Head off problems at the pass. If there are any concerns you have, make time to sit down with your employees individually and discuss the issues together. I highly recommend the methods from the book Crucial Confrontations to simultaneously address issues and build relationships.

Chris Hutchinson

About the Author:  Chris Hutchinson, President and CEO of Trebuchet Group, helps facilitate leadership growth and business success of local and global clients, using a collaborative approach to enable consistent, effective results. He can be reached at

© 2008 Trebuchet Group