How to Manage the Bottom 15%

At WD-40 about 60% believe they can achieve their career goals without leaving the company. The strategy is simple, but not necessarily easy.*

  1. Learn
  2. Leap
  3. Repeat

“Every single person in your organization is on a learning curve – including you.” (Whitney Johnson at the World Business Forum 2018)

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3 stages on the learning curve:

#1. Inexperience and slow growth

15% of your workforce should be at the low end of the curve. Typically, the inexperience phase lasts 6 to 12 months.

#2. Engagement and rapid growth – competency

70% of your workforce should be in the rapid growth phase of the curve.

#3. Mastery

15% of your workforce should be in the mastery stage. But these are the people who may be looking to leave, unless you give them new opportunities to grow.

As time passes, unchallenged mastery often becomes boredom and complacency.

How to manage the bottom 15%:

#1. Hire for potential, not simply proficiency.

Create a bottom 15%.

Don’t focus exclusively on hiring people at the top of the curve. Leaders often complain that they can’t find any good people. If you can’t find “good” people, hire for potential.

“Hiring for potential – it’s like buying low and selling high.” Whitney Johnson

Tip: Reassign anyone who has been in the bottom 15% longer than a year. If you can’t reassign, redesign their job. If you’ve been training someone for a year with little progress, retraining in the same area won’t work.

#2. Have a plan for people’s growth.

  • 6 months at the low end of the learning-curve.
  • 3 years in the sweet spot.
  • 6 months at the high end of the learning-curve. (Learn-leap-repeat)

#3. Value inexperience.

When someone takes on a new job their contribution slows.


  1. Potential.
  2. Growth.
  3. Curiosity. The annoying questions of a novice often open the door to innovation.

What suggestions do you have for managing the bottom 15%? 

*This post is based on Whitney Johnson’s keynote at the World Business Forum 2018.