How Do I Fire Someone and Still Win Well?

Firing With Compassion: How Do I Fire Someone and Still Win Well?

Managers often have to fire people, but there is a huge difference between managers who do it well and those who make it a terrible, humiliating experience. Firing someone is one of the most difficult things most managers will ever do. Even so, removing a person from your team is an important part of winning. Removing poor performers tells your contributing people that you value their time and effort.  When you remove troublesome individuals you help everyone become more productive–especially you. A troublesome poor performer can soak up to 80 percent of your time when you don’t take proper care of the situation.

What Inspired This Post

We had an overwhelming response to David’s recent post, Employee to Valuable to Fire? 6 Leadership Strategies. It takes courage to establish clear standards of behavior and hold even your “high performers” accountable for destructive behaviors.

This has inspired several of you to ask us an important follow-up question, “So, what if I have to fire someone, who’s a really nice guy, but is not the right fit and is really struggling? I’ve trained. I’ve coached. I’ve found a mentor. I just don’t think they can get there from here… can I fire them and still be a Winning Well manager?”

As we share in Winning Well.

Now you might think Winning Well managers have everyone focused on the right behaviors, hold them accountable, and inspire greatness, so there would be no need to fire anyone. Sadly, even the strongest managers find themselves in situations where the best solution for all parties is to part ways. Winning Well managers know how to fire someone with grace and dignity

So yes, if you’re going to win, there will come a time where you need to fire people. How you do it determines if you win well. This trips up many managers.

As we were in the early stages of writing together, we were surprised at how similar our experiences were when it came to letting someone go. Both of us had numerous examples of people for whom we had done everything we possibly could, finally had to have the tough conversation to let them go, and then they sent us a friendly Facebook request and we’re still in touch.

They don’t all go that way of course. And it’s important to understand the gravity of the situation. We totally agree with a client who shared, “If you ever reach a place where you can affect a person’s livelihood and family without a second thought, then it’s time for you to resign.”

A Mindset Shift

One fundamental mindset to embrace before you can help your people achieve results together is not everyone is meant to be part of every group, team, or organization.

On the surface, this may seem self-evident, and yet you’ve probably been part of an organization or team that suffered because those with the responsibility to ensure fit and mission alignment did not do their job. At the heart of terminating employees with grace and dignity is the understanding that the human being in front of you has strengths and value–strengths and value that just don’t work in this current position.

If you need to fire someone, it doesn’t really matter if she did something wrong or simply isn’t an ideal fit. We’re talking about a mindset you bring to the process: This isn’t personal, and not everyone is meant to be part of every team.

One of the most important pieces of the termination decision is the awareness that when you help someone move on, you serve that person too. This is a vital part of knowing how to say good-bye: realizing that you don’t do an employee any favors by tolerating poor performance, mission alignment, or abuse of co-workers.

How Do I Fire Someone and Still Win Well?

Every situation is different of course. And please involve your HR manager to do this well. On top of that, we offer this perspective.

First, do your homework. When you prepare properly, you make it less likely you’ll run into problems with termination decisions. That’s why we stress the importance of clear expectation. If you get frustrated with an employee’s performance, but your expectations weren’t clear, that’s your fault, not hers. Be diligent with clear expectations know your company’s policies and procedures, and go through the right processes to help the person perform or prepare for the termination.

Now let’s assume you’ve done all the work leading up to the termination decision. You’ve clarified expectations, provided necessary training, given appropriate second chances, and still it did not work out. And now your stuck with “How?”

Human Resources professionals will rightly tell you to keep the conversation short, clear and direct. Generally, in the presence of a witness, you will tell the employee what is happening, have her pack, and escort her off-site. Don’t apologize. Be aware of security issues; we’ve both conducted termination where we had extra security planted around the corner if things got “crazy” with an employee who became abusive or threatening.

When You Want to Say More

When your heart calls for more than a simple, straightforward response keep in mind:

  1. It’s not about you.
    It can be tempting to express your own difficulty or emotional anguish about letting someone go. Don’t. A simple, neutrally-worded statement along the lines of “These conversations are not easy” is adequate.
  2. He’s not performing, but he’s not bad.
    Be clear about the behaviors that are a reason for the termination. Referencing the behaviors, not the person.
  3. She has a future and could use some hope.
    Help her to fail forward. When terminating someone for something stupid he/she did (like an ethics violation) you could share your experiences of others who have bounced back “You don’t have to let this define you. I’ve seen many people who have bounced back and had vibrant careers.”
  4. Allow space for questions.
    It’s compassionate to say something like, “I know this can be a lot to take in. Do you have any questions about the process or what happens next?”
  5. You can say goodbye.
    We’ve never regretted taking a moment to connect and say goodbye. If you were close, it’s okay to say something personal if it feels right.

Compassionate leaders stay compassionate. Stay firm, don’t back-pedal. But it’s okay to say, “Good-bye,” and, “You can survive this.”