How to Know When to Fire Someone

How to know when to fire someone

Without a doubt, the hardest part of being a manager is firing a team member. You don’t really hear that word a lot these days – “FIRING”- it sounds so harsh. I think we feel better about ourselves when we use phrases like “exiting the business” or “letting people go”. In his awesome book “Disrupted” Dan Lyons recalls how Hub Spot used the term “Graduation” to refer to terminations. On the one hand, I find this comical, and on the other hand I find it offensive in the way it sugar coats such a terrible thing.

Whatever words you use to describe it, firing a person is tough. And, as tough as it is for you as the manager, its 100X tougher for the employee being terminated. Your team members have families, mortgages, reputations. The impact of firing someone persists for decades. It sits like a stain on the resume and needs to be explained away at every job interview for years to come. It cuts at a person’s confidence and takes a long time to bounce back from. If it wasn’t obvious already, firing someone needs to be taken very seriously.

I’ve written several blogs about firing employees. I highly recommend reading these if you haven’t already. Here are a couple of my favorites:

3 Signs it’s Time to Let an Employee Go

Quick Reid – On Firing Employees

Over the years I’ve battled with how to know whether to fire someone or to give them more time to develop. Ultimately, for me, it comes down to only one thing. That’s what we’re going to cover this week.

The impact of firing someone can’t be overstated. It is not to be taken lightly and thankfully most managers don’t. But the impact of NOT firing someone can also be significant. The culture of a team can turn toxic when strong performers see incompetent or ineffective team members getting a free ride. It’s even worse when mean spirited and unethical behavior is allowed to go unchecked. Way too many managers, in my opinion, let the fear of firing trick them into carrying people they shouldn’t. It’s just so much easier NOT to fire someone … at least in the short run. But as much as I loathe the idea of having to fire people, I’m even more fearful of the repercussions of not firing people who need to leave.

Over the years, I’ve battled with these hard questions as so many of you have. And ultimately I’ve distilled my decision-making process down to one fundamental question. When I’m struggling with the idea, when I’m weighing the pros and cons, I ask myself this:

“Do I still believe in this person?”

That probably seems like an over simplification. Maybe even a tiny bit disappointing for some of you who have read this far expecting something a little more novel. But let me explain in a bit more detail how I got here. If I “believe” a staff member will ultimately get to the performance level they need to be at, AND they are a good, positive person on the team, I will choose to continue investing in their development just about every time.

I don’t ever want to be one of those managers who turns on his team. I want team members to feel inspired and challenged to push themselves, but comfortable that if they do the right things they’re not going to be surprised one day with a termination. That’s the magic formula in my opinion. What I don’t want, is to create an environment where employees are paranoid and worried all the time. No one can be creative and perform well in those circumstances. But I also don’t want an environment of complacency, where team members feel there are no repercussions for low effort, questionable judgement and poor performance. As managers, we need to strike the perfect balance.

Here are some indicators that help me answer the question – Do I still believe in this person?

Do they care? And are they giving 100%?

How much a person is committed to being great has a major bearing on whether or not I would consider firing them. If a person is giving maximum effort and truly cares about their performance, I will find every possible reason to continue investing in their development. It might take longer than we’d originally hoped, but with that kind of effort, there is a high probability the team member will ultimately reach the level required. On the other hand, if a person isn’t giving 100%, my attitude flips completely. In fact, I’d be more likely to fire someone operating at 75% of the required performance level who is giving a weak effort than someone operating at 25% of the required performance level who is giving a strong effort.

I want to invest in people who care and I don’t want to be in business with people who don’t.

Is there a functional skills gap or a moral/personal gap?

Gaps in functional skills can be closed with coaching and training. Personal gaps, like morals and ethics, tend never to close. Before I fire someone, I ask myself which one I’m dealing with. If it’s a skills deficiency, I look for reasons to keep the person and find opportunities for them to develop further and faster. If it’s a moral deficiency I immediately move towards termination.

You may argue that we are all developing as humans and that questionable morals at one time in life is not deterministic of the future. You may argue that by bailing at the first sign of ethical deficiency, I’m giving up too soon. It’s possible you’re right on some level. The truth is I like the person I am more now than I did 20 years ago. I have evolved as we all do. But as a manager, I just don’t think it’s worth putting it to chance. Every minute you endorse a staff member with questionable morals or a mean-spirited demeanor, you send a very bad message to your team. Your team can turn in an instant if you’re observed to be supporting this type of behavior.

I want to be in business with good people. I want to build a team full of nice human beings. For me, the factor that most determines my day to day happiness at work is the quality of people I’m with. I’m much more likely to invest in a person a little longer if they’re genuinely kind and good. Maybe this is obvious to you. But if it were obvious to all managers, the complexion of many companies would change considerably.

Can I trust them or am I afraid of being embarrassed?

There is a difference between a person who is struggling to perform and a person who is struggling to perform AND you can’t trust. It’s important for me to differentiate the two. Some team members are challenged to perform to expectations but demonstrate the judgement to protect against big mistakes and embarrassing situations. They’ll make sure to review materials before a big presentation. They’ll ask a lot of questions and double and triple check all work. They’re conscious of the gap that exists and take precautions to mitigate it. On the other hand, there are employees who aren’t meeting the required performance level but are also reckless. They’re confident without reason. They charge forward. They make unilateral decisions. They present low quality work without review. They make you feel like there is a landmine hiding around every corner.

If an employee is struggling but acknowledges the gap and has good judgement, I’m very likely to support them for some time. If an employee is struggling but is also reckless, I will tend to move quickly to termination.

Are they making any progress at all?

This last point is about finding evidence to justify your belief. Are there signs that prove they are making progress. Even something small. If there is some evidence of improvement, I’m very likely to continue believing in a team member. It may take months or quarters or even years to reach the goal, but if progress is taking place, I’m inclined to stay invested. On the other hand, if we’ve been talking about performance improvement for months and we can’t honestly point to any progress, I’m much more likely to move towards termination.

I’m not an expert in firing people. I’m not sure any of us wants to be. I’ve made no secret in my blogs about how much it affects me emotionally. I don’t sleep well leading up to a termination. I worry about it. I search for reasons to justify not doing it. I think that is just the nature of being human. But over the course of my career I’ve had to develop an objective framework for making these types of decisions so I can build the best teams possible. And, as much as I hate to do it, I’ve found the questions in this post to help me know when to continue investing and when to make the hardest decision a manager faces. I’d love to hear your experiences and approaches to making these hard choices. Let me know in the comments.

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