Here’s some food for thought: If faced with a choice between an undependable and an incompetent employee, who would you rather hire? Let’s be clear, no one wants to willingly hire an undependable or incompetent employee. These types of workers can be toxic to employee moral and productivity. Like a nuclear wasteland, you ideally want to stay far away from this hiring situation. In a perfect world, hiring such people would be a rare occurrence, but reality is rarely so cut and dry. In fact, reality can be quite strange. In 2010 an English recruitment agency boss was told posting an ad for “reliable” applicants could be offensive to unreliable people. Most managers will not face such an extreme situation in the hiring process, thankfully. It is still inevitable that an undependable or incompetent person will slip through the hiring process. Let’s assume you have two employees and you need to hire one of them, despite knowing their issues in advance.
An undependable worker may be an employee who is constantly late, may not show up for work on certain days or is a habitual procrastinator. When they are around, they do their job well and may be quite talented. For example, your company’s accountant may be brilliant with finances, but they make take every other Friday off. Or you may have a social media specialist who is always a half hour late for work. Projects may not be directly impacted, but your more reliable employees may have to work harder in the morning until she arrives.
Undependable workers, especially those who are talented, can be managed. Clear expectations, boundaries and rules are the first step in dealing with an undependable person. Going back to my second example, if your social media specialist has been getting away with constant tardiness, boundaries need to be set. Unreliable employees need to be reminded that their behavior affects the company as a whole. Unless you address the issue, a problematic employee may not see their actions as harmful. If you dig deeper you may even find an underlying reason for their unreliability. Family members may be ill or there may have been a recent lifestyle change in the undependable’s life. Addressing these issues may be as simple as a change of hours, designated coverage for temporary problems, or giving the employee the option to telecommute.
An incompetent employee may present more of a challenge. He or she may have the best of intentions, but constantly makes mistakes while doing the job. They may be eager to please, and may give you the impression they fully understand the task at hand. Despite their hard work, the level of quality is still subpar or the job is done incorrectly. One pertinent example comes to mind. I was once told by a good friend about a part-time mechanic who worked on the truck fleet for a large shipping company. He attempted to fix a broken truck bumper with a forklift (not an uncommon practice). Instead, he made the problem much worse when he accidentally pierced the grill and radiator with the forklift. This was just one incident in a long string of problems stemming from incompetency. The mechanic was ultimately given the simpler task of working on brakes for large trailers.
This anecdote leads me directly to my next point, managing an incompetent person. Once again, clear boundaries and expectations will need to be set. Unlike the undependable employee, the incompetent employee might be willing to improve. An underperforming employee should be reminded of their strengths, while their areas of weakness are defined. Perhaps a particular job task wasn’t explained well enough or the employee is afraid to admit they lack proper training. If an incompetent employee still doesn’t “get it” after explanations and training, they may need to be reassigned to a position that matches their skill level, if possible.
In our theoretical hiring situation, we have the undependable worker versus the incompetent worker. Both problem employees have their potential solutions. One person may perform their job just fine, but may require more flexible hours, while another person may need to be retrained or reassigned. If you look at the situation from a resources viewpoint, the undependable worker is a better choice. You won’t have to expend time and energy retraining or reassigning them because they know how to do their job. If time and energy aren’t a major issue, and the attitude of the incompetent employee fits your company culture, they may be a better choice.
So, who would you hire?