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Dealing with unreliable employees

by Karen Gately on October 13, 2015

We’ve all seen them in action – the person who cruises along, flies under the radar of accountability and lets the team down just when they are needed most. Sometimes these people are just as capable of rising to the occasion and achieving outstanding results. The problem is they can’t be relied upon to deliver consistently and tend to cause havoc for the rest of the team.

Unreliable people not only let themselves and the team down, they typically drain their manager of precious energy and time. Yet all too often I observe leaders failing to act to address the issue. The reason many give for tolerating unreliable behaviour is that they don’t want to lose the knowledge, skills or experience the individual brings. In other words, they are willing to tolerate their unreliability for the benefit gained when they are at their best.

What leaders who do choose to hold these high potential, poor performing employees accountable realise, is that talent is worthless unless effectively applied. It doesn’t matter how capable someone is, unless they choose to behave successfully their potential is wasted. Sure, some benefit is gained but when what they achieve is weighed against the detrimental consequences of their performance and behaviour, it isn’t difficult to see why it’s as necessary as it is to act.

The most important things you can do to deal with unreliable employees are these six things:

  1. Commit to creating a successful environment

Take the step necessary to address the impacts unreliable people have on your team. It’s common for high performing staff to choose to leave a business because they are frustrated by the inaction of leaders in dealing with poor performers. Successful people want to be on a successful team and are typically disillusioned by a leader who fails to create an environment in which the team can succeed.

  1. Be clear

Make your expectations of how people need to behave and perform clear. Ensure each individual understand why their role matters to the team and businesses success. Be clear about what is considered a successful standard of contribution as well as behaviour valued and expected. Explain the consequences that will be applied – both the reward and recognition people can expect as well as the actions that will be taken to address unacceptable standards.

  1. Walk your talk

Remember actions speak louder than words; once you have set your expectations you need to hold yourself and every member of your team consistently accountable. Inconsistent leadership undermines not only clarity but also commitment. Also impacted is confidence in your leadership. Leading by example and doing what you say will is essential to building the depth of trust you need to inspire and lead your team to achieve the heights of your organisations potential.

  1. Act with strength and compassion

Be prepared to have the ‘tough love conversations’ needed to help people understand the gap between what you expect and what they are currently doing. Guiding people to choose more successful behaviours requires that they trust you. Trust depends on your ability to deliver honest feedback with respect and sensitivity. Be direct and truthful but also respectful to the individual, and they are more likely to respond well and improve.

  1. Follow through

Be prepared to take the actions necessary to reinforce the standards you set. Idol threats encourage the behaviours that are holding people back from being a reliable member of your team. If you have given someone reasonable opportunity to understand your expectations, benefit from your support and guidance and they continue to behave unreliably, you need to exit them from your business. Holding on to people who consistently underperform despite your best efforts to hep them succeed will drain the spirit of your team and undermine your businesses ability to thrive.

  1. Believe success is possible

For three years I worked with a leader to deal with ongoing frustrations caused by a senior member of his team who was brilliant one day and totally unreliable the next. The strength of the individual’s client relationships and depth of industry experience, together with their challenging personality made his manager hesitant to act. Faced with growing issues as a consequence, finally the decision was reached to deal with his conduct.

When ultimately faced with the threat of losing his job, the team member in question predictably threatened to resign. As planned the manager held firm and accepted his resignation to which the team member responded “fine! I’ll think about it”. In that moment the manager knew the tide had turned. The team member did return the next day and while it was at times a challenging road, today he is performing well and growing in his career.

While far from always the case, honest, firm and fair leadership can influence the way people choose to behave and help them to become a more successful version of themselves.

Karen GatelyKaren Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. Karen works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people. For more information visit Karen’s website or contact

Karen Gately
Karen Gately is a highly-regarded author, speaker, advisor and educator in the field of human performance and leadership. She brings a fresh and down to earth approach, advocating a methodology focused on leveraging both talent and energy to drive great results. Karen is passionate about guiding women to reach their full potential and to step up to the challenges of the business world.Karen founded HR consultancy Ryan Gately in 2006, after 8 years as Human Resources Director – Asia Pacific with The Vanguard Group. She is the author of two leadership titles, The Corporate Dojo and The People Manager’s Toolkit (Wiley, 2013). Her approach is deeply rooted in the 25 years spent training and teaching karate. She was the youngest person in Shukokai karate awarded a 1st Dan black belt at age 14 and won multiple state, national and international titles.
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