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Secrets of Success

Past Their Prime?

Sports fans know the stories all too well:

Willie Mays, the great former San Francisco Giant outfielder, wearing a New York Mets uniform as he stumbles past third base attempting to score.

Johnny Unitas, the famed Baltimore Colts quarterback, ending his career as a backup quarterback for the San Diego Chargers.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali in the last fight of his illustrious career losing a unanimous decision to the unheralded Trevor Berbick.

Each one seemed unable to face the fact that they were past their prime and unable to perform. Despite that, they continued to attempt to ply their trade.

What about you? Do you have any employees that are past their prime unable to perform at the level needed by those around them?

If so, understanding the issues and having some ways to approach those issues could be quite useful.

The Root of the Problem

In dealing with owners and managers who face this dilemma, I often find three variables are in play.

First, the person in question has often been working in the organization for a long time—20- to 30-year tenures are not uncommon.

Second, the employee at one time was very important to the organization and in the past might have made significant contributions.

Third, the manger or owner truly cares about this employee and is very sensitive about taking any actions that will upset the person.

These three factors often cause an owner or manager to feel a great sense of responsibility for the welfare of that worker.

Adding to the quandary is concern that this aging employee may never be able to find another job that pays anything close to their current salary.

This combination of loyalty and guilt is at the root of the problem. And it can become quite a problem.

What Happens Next

Faced with an employee who is unable or unwilling to perform, the manager suddenly finds himself or herself dealing with a very sensitive issue. To make sure the work gets done, the manager or owner will often bring in another employee to “help” or hire someone from the outside with the necessary skills. Sometimes this is done under the guise of redefining people’s job descriptions. Sometimes the cover story is that the jobs are too big and another pair of hands is needed to do the work.

Regardless of the story, the affected person quickly sees through it. Fearing they are being “put out to pasture,” they fight back. Some become secretive and attempt to withhold information. Others become argumentative and even belligerent accusing management of undermining them. They will insist the new people ”don’t understand how things are done; that they lack the skills necessary to handle the job.”

The poor employee who has been brought in because they truly have the skills needed to do the job often is embarrassed or uncomfortable.

The manager, unwilling to tell the truth for fear of hurting the veteran worker, says nothing, makes excuses, or simply deflects the conversation. These actions simply allow the problem to fester.

What Needs to Happen

Next time you walk into a dense forest look around. You’ll notice trees in three stages of growth—the mature healthy trees, the young saplings and the dead or dying trees.

The dead or dying trees have had a good life but they have to give way to make room for the young and mature trees. As they deteriorate, they continue to make a contribution enriching the soil for the inhabitants of the forest.

The same thing that happens in the forest must also happen in your workplace with your aging employees—these once “mighty oak trees” whose time has passed. There may be opportunities to help them transition and still add value. If there is a genuine way you can continue to use the person’s talents, let them know. It may be in a mentoring role, it may be part time working on projects. If you would like to propose such an arrangement, feel free.

If, however, there is no way to make use of the person’s skills, another conversation will need to take place. It has to be respectful and you have to be sensitive, but the health of your organization will depend on your willingness to tackle this issue. Explain the need to give others an opportunity just as the employee was once given an opportunity. Create a time frame for the employee’s departure and stick to it.

Everything ends.

Careers like people go through life cycles.

Honoring the contribution the person has made is important but making sure the path is open for other people to make their mark is equally important.

Handling the matter in a sensitive way allows former employees to move on with their lives and allows the organization the opportunity to move forward.

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CTS Consulting, Inc

3126 Berkshire Road

Baltimore, Maryland 21214

phone 410-444-5857

cell 443-286-2488