Fire a poor performer

How to Be Okay When It’s Time to Fire a Poor Performer

It takes compassion and strength to fire a poor performer.

Have you ever been reluctant to fire a poor performer? You might identify with Mary.

She approached David as he finished delivering a leadership development program and introduced herself. “I was the vice president of a well-known technology company, and I consistently did everything you just talked about—with one exception. I let people stay who weren’t right for the team.”

David replied, “You’re not alone. That’s a difficult challenge for most managers.”

Mary frowned. “Yes, it is. It’s also why I said ‘I was the vice president.’ I lost my job because I didn’t practice adequate accountability. Please make sure people know how important this is. Tell them Mary said so.”

Well, Mary—this is for you.

Firing someone is one of the most difficult things most managers ever have to do. Even so, the decision to fire a poor performer is an important aspect of your leadership. Removing poor performers tells your top performers you value their time and effort.

When you remove troublesome individuals, you help everyone be more productive—especially you. In our experience, a troublesome poor performer can soak up 80 percent of your time when you don’t take proper care of the situation.

So yes, there will come a time when you need to fire a poor performer.

Now, it may feel easy to fire someone you’ve never cared for, who treated you and everyone else rudely and abused customers, but what about when you like the person? You’ve grown close over the years. You care about her. You might even know her family. Perhaps she’s even a strong performer who did something stupid. Now you need to fire her. How do you get okay with that?

How to Be Okay When It’s Time to Fire a Poor Performer

It’s okay for these decisions to be tough. This isn’t a bad thing—you should take it seriously. Dick Saunders, the Founder and CEO of Saunders Construction once told us in an interview, “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.”

You might feel like you don’t want to hurt the person or his family. If you’re a Pleaser Manager, you want people to like you. Even Users can procrastinate on these decisions. To move past this paralysis, you’ll need to change your mindset.

When you manage, there will come a time when you realize a person is no longer committed to the mission and is not, or never was, a good fit for the organization. In these situations, you want to be sure you’ve made reasonable efforts to help her (reinforce expectations, alert her to the issue, provide any needed training, and practice your company’s due process if it has one).

If you’ve done this and it’s clear that the person needs to move on, the most important thing you can do for your team, for your own credibility, and for the employee is to help her go.

Don’t do it because other people think you should, don’t do it because you’re angry, and don’t do it to avoid other problems. When you terminate, do it because it is best for the team, the organization, and that employee.

Not Everyone Belongs Here

One mindset to embrace before you can help your people achieve results together is that not everyone should be a part of every team.

The human being in front of you has strengths and value—strengths and value that just don’t work for his current position.

Karin worked with an HR manager who had lots of big ideas but constantly suffered in execution. After a year of reviewing expectations, performance-improvement planning, training, and straight talk, she had to let him go. A year later he called her and said:

“Thank you. Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m working on my Ph.D., teaching, and consulting. In hindsight, I should have quit, but I was too scared about what to do next. This forced me into needed action.”

If you need to fire someone, it doesn’t really matter if she did something wrong or isn’t an ideal fit. We’re talking about a mindset you bring to the process: This isn’t about them as a person – it’s facing the reality that not everyone should be a part of every team.

When You Fire a Poor Performer, You Serve Them Too

One of the most important pieces of the decision to fire a poor performer is your awareness that you serve the person you let go.

This is a vital part of knowing how to say goodbye: realizing that you don’t do an employee any favors by tolerating poor performance, mission misalignment, or abuse of coworkers.

When you refuse to help someone move on, you actually hurt them.

With mission misalignment, if you don’t say goodbye, you keep the person from learning more about his strengths. When you tolerate negligence or abuse, you enable poor behavior and prevent the individual from learning how to succeed in the real world.

In either case, while it’s not pleasant, it can definitely be an act of caring if your motivations include both what is best for the individual and on what is best for the organization.

Your Turn

Don’t allow your lack of courage or your discomfort to hurt your poor performers and your good ones. Great managers know when and how to say goodbye because they recognize that in doing so, they express how much they value their team, for the mission, and even for the departing staff member.

We’d love to hear from you: leave a comment and share your experience – either the consequences of a poor performer who stayed too long or a leader skilled at moving people out of poorly matched roles.

For more, check out this video from Karin on what happens when you leave a toxic manager in their role:

You might also like:

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.”