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The Mediocre Employee

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A few years ago I worked with a client who made the decision to hire a store manager. This person had decades of experience, although the majority was at a chain store with a much lower average repair order. The shop had a great long-term reputation and the owner was active in the day to day. The new manager settled in quickly and was very professional. There were never any egregious mistakes but, over time, there were minor excuses, recorded sales calls that did not indicate a strong drive to bring in new customers that weren’t “easy” and sales stayed relatively flat. This employee was, in a word, mediocre.

One of the things I like most about reading Ratchet+Wrench is reading stories about successful shop owners. It inspires me to keep pushing; otherwise, life gets boring and stagnant. And I see no shortage of stagnation in our industry. 

Anytime I interview people, I hear stories of dead-end shops where nothing changes. People crave change and forward momentum—the younger generations more so. Stagnation and mediocrity are actually often a more challenging issue to solve than cut-and-dry failure, which requires quick and decisive action.

This is a real issue in our industry and, chances are, you have experienced it in the past, present, and future. A lousy employee makes the decision easy on you. But what do you do when someone isn’t really bad enough to fire but just isn’t great? 

Let’s start by defining it. What makes an employee mediocre? He or she is capable of showing up on time, meeting the basic job requirements, and doing as told if you spell it out specifically. Often, he or she doesn’t leave on their own accord. These employees aren’t overly driven to improve; may not be self-starters or problem-solvers; aren’t often open to change; and occasionally play the victim card. Sound familiar? 

Now, if we had an abundance of qualified people to hire, it would be an easier decision to cut some of these people loose—especially if you didn’t even hire him or her! I’ve spoken with several shop owners who took over their shops from parents and have a 30-year employee who they feel stuck with and who is dragging the team down. Having seen that particular situation play out several times, I can say that 90 percent of the time, when that person moves on or is let go, the sense of relief is immense and the business immediately begins to move forward. Almost every time I’ve lost a person—good or bad—the rest of the team picks it up, chips in, and we get the work done. 

Being afraid to let someone go is a huge stumbling block. We all have to learn that lesson—we can’t count on always getting lucky with those unicorn employees (you know the ones). Whether we inherited a mediocre employee, made a less-than-ideal hire, or the person in question is just burnt out, it’s a very real problem that all business owners face. If it’s chronic enough, it can indicate a leadership problem but, even with great leaders, a few of these will pop up from time to time. So what can we do about it?

First of all, it’s never too late to turn it around. The closest thing to a silver bullet I can offer on this is to have your shop’s standards defined clearly and thoroughly. In that scenario, any employee will squarely fall either on one side of the line or the other. For an advisor, that could be customer service rating combined with gross profit sales. For a tech, that could be billed hours and comebacks. Attitude, of course, factors into this, too, but that’s subjective. 

If an employee is outside your standards, one solution can be moving him or her to a different position in the company, or to another location if you have multiple stores. Most of our shops aren’t 100 percent dialed in and, with a shortage of people, it can be hard to fire someone who shows up and gets the job done in a basic sense. That decision is often made on a case-by-case basis with several factors to consider. Those might include the employee’s loyalty, any possibility for improvement, and, most importantly, his or her effect on company culture. If a so-so employee is bringing the rest of the staff down, that’s a clear sign they have to go.

For me, this decision often comes down to my gut. You know, that thing that most of us use to run our shops?! I am very growth-focused and if I sense a person in any of my companies is not in that same mindset, I start thinking about where else I can fit that person or where else he or she might be happier working so I can get someone else in who is driven and wants to grow and succeed. It’s very cultural and any of you with high-performing shops know what it feels like. 

When the time finally comes, almost everyone I know (myself included) that has gone back and forth on this issue reaches the conclusion, “I should have moved on from that situation a long time ago.”

So, that is what I’m going to leave you with. The next time you find yourself with a clearly identified mediocre employee, think about the potential cost not of losing them, but of the missed opportunity that a superior replacement could provide you, your customers, and staff in terms of growth and success.

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