The Three T’s model for struggling employees

Every people leader will be faced with the challenge of managing a chronically underperforming employee at some point. A lot of time and energy can be absorbed by underperformers. It can be tough to determine WHY someone is struggling. A myriad of reasons exists. Generally, it’s worth spending the time to try and identify the cause. If we understand the root cause, we can create a plan to address it. But sometimes it’s impossible to determine the why and we’re stuck struggling with what to do.

Several years ago, I learned about a simple framework to help define a path forward for underperforming employees called the Three T’s, which stands for Train-Transfer-Terminate. The concept being, if someone is persistently underperforming in their role, in most cases you can pursue one of three options:

  1. Train them. Perhaps they are underperforming due to a lack of training and knowledge, which is preventing them from doing their job well, despite their best efforts. Investing time and energy in training is always worth the time; it’s a high return activity. Sometimes an employee won’t realize where their knowledge gap is and you’ll have to suss this out yourself. If you can tell someone is engaged and working hard, but continues to underperform, it may be a sign additional training is required.

  2. Transfer them. A very capable and engaged employee can struggle or fail when placed in the wrong role. Sometimes the problem isn’t the person, it’s the role they are in. If you can tell the person has the right attitude and capabilities, transitioning them into an alternative role can allow them to thrive. That could be a different role and accountabilities on the same team or a new role in an entirely different function within the organization.

  3. Termination. If training won’t solve the problem and you believe the person is in the right role, but they persistently underperform, then you must terminate them. Leaving someone who is failing in a role is unfair to them, unfair to their colleagues, and unfair to the company. Obviously, these are difficult decisions. They are not made easier by inaction.

Because we are talking about people, situational context is critical and nuance exists. The “three T’s” model isn’t perfect. But it’s a relatively simple and easy to remember mental model to help diagnose the problem.


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