Motivate or Terminate: What To Do When An Employee Isn’t Meeting Your Expectations

by | Mar 23, 2015 | Blog

  • Amy Letke

    Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success. Contact us for more insights - 502-753-0970 or

To motivate or to terminate. That is the question.

I know, this Shakespeare pun is rehashed over and over, but I couldn’t help myself – it even rhymes!

Anyway, back to the two choices: motivate or terminate. As a business owner, when is this the question?

You may be faced with the decision to motivate or terminate an employee when:

  • A new hire is not living up to expectations
  • A long-time employee isn’t performing as well as other employees
  • An employee has “checked out” and is no longer performing like they used to

So how do you decide whether you want to motivate or terminate an employee?

That can be a tough decision to make. One way to determine this is to ask: Does the employee fit in with the organization?

Most organizations I have worked with over the years have a consistent theme when it comes to employee exits as required by the company: the employee was not a good fit.

Evaluate how well the employee in question is fitting in the organization:

  • If they meet your core values, follow the mission and vision, and truly have a desire to be a key contributor, then perhaps you should choose to motivate.
  • If you’re working with an associate who is not meeting your cultural integration expectations, not adhering to core values or to the mission of the organization, then it may be the right decision to terminate.
  • If it’s not clear whether the fit is there, take the high road… Motivate and give the employee the opportunity to show you what they can or will not do.

Remember: the key to most of this is deciding if the employee is willing to make the necessary changes in order to be a contributing person within the organization. It’s a question of whether they have the “will” to perform or if they are just not able to do it, which is more of a skill set issue.

Steps to motivate:

Take these tips when you have an employee who fits well but is just not performing to the level you want:

1. Set clear performance goals.

Create some very specific, measurable goals and get them down in writing. Then, meet with the employee and discuss. These goals can be in the form of a performance improvement plan or a success plan. Be sure to have your expectations in a measurable format so that you can track the employee’s progress. Also, set a re-evaluation date, maybe 30 or 60 days out, to allow time for the change to take place.

2. Assign (or reassign) a good role model or mentor

Sometimes new employees, or even existing employees, who are struggling to achieve higher performance need someone as a coach who can help support them in making positive behavior changes. You might find some leaders do a better job of this than others. Those are the ones you want to serve as coaches and role models.

3.  When positive change happens, celebrate it

If working through the performance plan and assigning a positive role model is successful, it’s important to celebrate with that employee to give them positive reinforcement for their efforts. In fact, celebrations are a good idea overall; If you’re not using goals to reward high performers now, it’s a great idea to implement that along with your “motivational” program for those who are not meeting expectations.

When to realize motivating isn’t working:

When you meet with the employee on the re-evaluation date, you are able to assess the employee’s progress. If the employee is making improvements, then you’re headed in the right direction. If they’re not, then you have the decision whether you want to continue to motivate or if it’s time to coach that person out of the organization.


I know, it’s never fun to spend time terminating employees. We always expect to have a good experience from the start. However, sometimes it doesn’t work out. We have a choice as key leaders whether we want to work with people or we don’t.

Okay, that’s a lot to take in. You can see that there is a lot to evaluate when deciding whether to motivate or terminate an employee. So I will leave you with a few tips to help you improve this process in the future.

“Keys of Success”:

  • Assign qualified, effective leaders to act as mentors
  • Evaluate and improve the communication of your expectations
  • Use solid assessment tools at the front end of your employment process so that you have a better idea of what motivates your employees upfront (Learn more about those here.)
  • Use successful methods that help employees be on-boarded, productive, and successful within your organization after they are hired
  • Hone your skills as a leader to determine how to best assess an employee’s will and skill set once an employee is on board

As always, if this blog completely overwhelms you and you decide you need help dealing with employee issues, just give us a call! We’d love to help you. You can learn about our small business HR solutions here.

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