Before You Let That Mediocre (Or Poor) Employee Go…

“Perhaps nobody ever accomplishes all that he feels lies in him to do; but nearly every one who tries his powers touches the walls of his being occasionally, and learns about how far to attempt to spring.” – Charles Dudley Warner (Backlog Studies, 1873)

The secret to having a top-notch working team is to compose it of the very best people. That’s the toughest job in business, because it requires you to do two very difficult things:

1. find and hire truly excellent people

2. correct and eventually fire weak employees

The first job is important but almost never urgent. That means it is seldom done except by people who exert extraordinary control over their time.

The second job is difficult. You have to admit that you hired the wrong person, work hard to get him to improve, and then let him go just as soon as you realize he will never improve. That process is exhausting — psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Still, as I’ve said several times in the past, if you want to be the best and accomplish great things, you have to do both of these things well. Today, I’d like to talk a bit more about how to fire people — the right way.

Because it’s so unpleasant to “let someone go,” we often keep mediocre employees much longer than we should. When we finally make the hard decision (the one we should have made months or years earlier), the impulse is to do it immediately. You want to act quickly and decisively, because you are afraid that if you don’t you may lose your resolve and keep him.

But don’t do that. Abrupt, unanticipated terminations are unnecessary, unfair, and legally dangerous and often have undesirable side effects. I’ve just experienced several such terminations secondhand. The employees were let go for good reasons, but only the people who did the firing knew what they were. All others concerned — fellow workers, friends, and vendors — were shocked. Even the fired employees were surprised. The results were very messy — and will take months and months to clean up.

Learning to fire someone well is a skill, as is learning to hire someone well. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

1. Make the decision to fire as early as you can. Since great employees show their true colors almost immediately, it really shouldn’t take more than a week’s time to decide. Set high standards. Be objective. If the employee isn’t what you’re looking for, do it.

2. As soon as possible after you have decided, bring the employee in for a candid talk. Explain your dissatisfaction carefully. Don’t make any character judgments, even if you have them. Don’t tell him, explicitly or otherwise, that he is dumb or lazy or untrustworthy. Instead, make specific complaints. Criticize the behavior, not the employee.

3. Try to engage the employee in a discussion about his own career objectives. Ask him how the job he’s doing meets his goals. You may very well discover that he is not happy with what he’s doing. This may result in a very pleasant agreement about his future — one that puts him somewhere else, with your support and no ill will on his part.

4. Document this first meeting in writing.

5. If it makes sense, outplace him to another department or division — but never because you want to pass along the headache to someone else. If he has strong skills that might work better somewhere else, by all means give him a recommendation.

6. If you can’t send him elsewhere and his performance doesn’t immediately and permanently improve, have one more formal warning session. Again, be very specific with your complaints. At this time, let him know that he may be terminated if the problems continue.

7. Document this second meeting in writing.

8. When the day comes (and this whole process outlined above could take place in a period as short as two weeks), consider having someone “neutral” there to witness the firing. Make it short and businesslike. Again, be sure to say nothing personal. Thank him for “giving it a go” and then stand up and walk him to the door.

Firing is an awful job. But it’s much worse if you do it poorly.

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