13 Bad Excuses for Letting Poor Performance Slide

by  Leigh Steere  |  Workplace Issues

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on dealing with poor performance.

In my last post, we met Robert, a well-meaning manager who waited far too long to fire a poor performer. His reason for the delay seemed noble at first, but the cost to his company and his own career became painful. Is there ever a good reason for letting poor performance drag on? This post lists 13 excuses managers sometimes lean on to postpone or offload the responsibility for confronting bad behavior.

Credits: Thanks to Peter Friedes (, Sarah Licha ( and Camille Preston, Ph.D. ( for your significant input on this topic. Your ideas and examples have made this a richer piece.

The 13 excuses are:

  1. Discomfort with confrontation. “I feel I come across as mean when I confront. I do not want to be viewed as a bully.”
  2. Fear of a lawsuit from someone in a protected class. “Each time I try to bring up the topic, Beth raises the harassment card.”
  3. Extenuating circumstances. “Jim is going through a rough time. His wife has cancer and I need to cut him some slack.”
  4. Anxiety about losing a star performer. “No one can stand working with Joe, but we can’t afford to let him go because he is the best financial modeler we have.”
  5. Concern about cross-cultural miscommunication. (The entire prior post provides a vivid example of this one.)
  6. Trying to preserve morale after a downsizing. “Confronting this performance problem right now might generate another wave of fear among the staff.”
  7. Desire to maintain headcount. “I know he is a poor performer. But if he goes now, I may lose my budget for this position.”
  8. Poor timing. “If I deal with this issue now, I might not reach my yearly objectives.”
  9. Popularity. “The staff loves her. If I fire her, the rest of the team may revolt.”
  10. The nonprofit factor. “We are a nonprofit and well aware that people work here for less pay than in the private sector. There is an added expectation of always being ‘nice’ because we are ‘doing good.’ I don’t want to discourage our workforce by seeming mean.”
  11. Uncertainty. “I am not sure I am right in my assessment.”
  12. Magnitude. “The issue isn’t that important. I will confront him if something bigger happens.”
  13. The employee’s self esteem. “I do not want to hurt the employee’s confidence.”

Some of these excuses sound quite reasonable, but each is “fed” by one or more erroneous assumptions. For example, in numbers 2-4, the manager seems to assume there are only two choices—letting the poor performance continue unchecked or firing the employee. What about coaching?

Equal opportunity performance management

Suppose numerous customers filed complaints about a particular employee’s conduct. Does it matter if that employee is male, female, young, old, in a particular ethnic group, able-bodied or wheelchair-bound, or your most brilliant software developer? You are not serving your customers if you let the employee’s poor conduct continue. If you would confront a non-protected-class employee about a particular issue, then it is also appropriate to do the same with an employee in a protected class and your star performers.

In #3, Jim does need some slack, but how should a manager define “slack”? Suppose Jim’s head is elsewhere and he is making lots of errors. Letting the errors continue is not the right solution. Talking with him about the errors and then offering him a paid leave of absence so he can focus on his family takes care of Jim and your customers.

Part 3 of this post will offer some tips to make these performance conversations easier. But you need to have these conversations.

If your customers, project quality, team productivity or morale are suffering, is there any valid excuse for failing to intervene in a timely manner? Aren’t the 13 excuses above just managerial versions of “the dog ate my homework”?

Note to readers: If this post struck a chord and if you are a manager, check out the free assessment at (You get a free report and you also will be helping us with a research study on management styles.)

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Shawn Murphy  |  13 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hi Leigh,
First it’s nice to “meet” you. We’ve not had a chance to interact here in LC.

Your examples are perfect. They hit upon the excuses we hear when we work with clients on the topic of performance management. I hope that readers share this with their clients to be used in conversations related to overcoming reluctance to discuss poor behavior.

Performance management isn’t about making people wrong. It’s about helping them see and know how their behavior interferes with the depths of success – personally, team-wise, and organizationally.

Also, what’s key here is that managers and team mates recognize the long term effect of not coaching a person for disruptive or poor behavior. If not addressed it slowly chips away at a team’s performance. At the individual level it robs the person of their effectiveness and credibility – no matter who they are and what they do.

Good post. I look forward to Part 3.


Tim Milburn  |  15 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hi Leigh.
This is a great list, not only for confronting poor performance, but confronting problems in general. I think there is an underlying fear in all of these “excuses.” As the leader, when fear infiltrates our motivation we tend to run from, ignore, or complain about a problem…but never do the necessary thing to deal with it.

I guess every response is an excuse that doesn’t ultimately lead to solving the problem.


John Heinrich  |  15 Mar 2011  |  Reply

These are great comments; in leading Solutions Forum, we’ve encountered every one of these excuses for poor leadership. I’m going to copy the article and use it in the next 30 days with all of my owner clients!
John Heinrich
President, Solutions Forum

Leigh Steere  |  16 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Shawn, Tim and John, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I had hoped this post might be a useful tool for managers and the coaches who work with them. :-)

Yesterday, I got quite a surprise. Tony Latimer, an executive coach in Singapore, wrote a very detailed response to this post in one of the LinkedIn groups. He listed what he would say to managers offering these excuses. Enjoy!…

The fear underlying these excuses:
“I don’t know how to give negative feedback in a positive, unemotional manner; therefore, I fear the emotional reaction I might provoke.”

Re: star performers…
“What about the other staff who may leave due to your perceived unfairness? Are you sending message that unacceptable behaviour is ok providing you do some function well? Brace yourself for the moment when Joe is the only one left.”

Re: trying to preserve morale after a downsising
“Post downsizing is a tough time. As a leader you have the responsibility to make what is left successful. Allowing performance to slip increases the risk for more downsizing later.”

Re: trying to maintain a budgeted position
“Done right, handling poor performance will rarely result in someone leaving, and if they do, you now have room for better performer. Start planning; this excuse can only be used in a very short period at year end when budgets are done. If you have failed to deal with the situation at any other point in the year, maybe you will have no budget for your own position.”

Re: the popular employee
“They may love her socially. They may love her because she lets them get away with under-performance. If she is not their boss, they will not love the fact that they are expected to work hard and she is rewarded for not performing. All this is fine if you are working to develop an under-performance culture. What is your responsibility as a leader to the company that pays you?”

Re: the nonprofit factor
“Being a supportive leader who proactively handles performance and thereby develops his/her people, is not being mean. It is very nice. Allowing people to fail is mean. And let’s look at the leader’s responsibility again. Regardless of pay rate (and they did accept the contract that said ‘do this job for this money,’ right? I don’t think it said, ‘do half this job for this money’). Let’s not forget, ‘Nonprofit’ does not mean Loss.”

Re: magnitude
If it is big enough to notice, it’s big enough to bring up with the employee. (my paraphrase)

Re: concern about the employee’s confidence
“The one thing they are confident about is their ability to ‘get away with it.’ The responsibility of a leader is to get results through others.”

“Overall the answer is the same. Managers at all levels are there to develop people and ensure performance is delivered. The common underlying reason for all the variations on excuses for not doing your job as a leader (and there are many more) is the fear of the emotional reaction you will get.”

Thank you, Tony!

Scooterbug  |  16 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Excellent article, but I’d like to add a 14th excuse: the poor performer is the boss’ friend. The boss then accepts mediocrity and is blind to egregious behaviors in addition to poor performance.

Tony Latimer,MCC  |  16 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Scooter bug, correct a common one. And in that situation it is the boss’s boss who needs some feedback first. They have failed in their leadership to observe and/or take action to give feedback and coach the boss on their approach to leadership and handling their team.

Also big thanks to Leigh for considering my observations on LinkedIn worthy of inclusion of the blog. Great articles Leigh. Keep it going.

Regards from the warm side of the world


Doug Fowler  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Great topic lead Leigh. Many of these excuses could be easily eliminated with a little communication. I truly believe that most people want to do good. There are exceptions but for the most part people want to do a good job and be recognized for it.

A good manager is able to effectively communicate and document an employee’s poor performance. Disciplinary action should never be a surprise. It should be the culmination of a process where the manager is sincerely working to change an employee’s behavior for the betterment of the organization. That’s it.

Too often, I see managers that do not want to do the daily work and the result is that they end up with a tough situation and create many of the common excuses you have outlined.


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