How to fire an employee without bad feelings

How to fire an employee without bad feelings

Who we hire, who we promote, and who we let go defines our team culture.

If we hire and promote hard working, ambitious individuals, while letting go of lazy people, we incentivize and maintain a productive culture.

Reality is not that simple. Many of us managers struggle to let go of underperforming team members. I find that this can be caused by a lack evidence on these individuals’ unproductivity, a hope that things will improve, or bureaucracy and politics that make the matter overly complicated to deal with.

In one instance on my team, the decision on whether to let go of an underperforming team member dragged on for almost a year. During that time, we provided weekly one-on-one coaching sessions, mentoring from three different leaders around the company, and even made changes to the person’s work responsibilities to better match their perceived strengths. 

Because the individual tried so hard to make it work, we were OK to go all out to help.

Yet improvements we saw were always temporary. As soon as we let go of the training wheels, things would go sour again. In the end, it was clear that the position was simply not a good fit for the individual.

The whole experience was a costly lesson. Much time was wasted as we failed to improve the individual’s performance, or to let go of the individual early on. I spent upward 40% of my energy on an underperforming team member, among a team of 20 people. Instead of leading our top performers to new heights, I tried to rid the team of a drag. It’s like trying to build a faster car by reducing its weight, but failing at it, while not trying to improve the engine’s performance.

As result, the team didn’t innovate, nor grow as fast as we hoped for.

What would I do differently today? Two things: 1. Have a clear deadline in mind when deciding to let go of a team member or not; and 2. Never spend more than 10% of my energy and time to help an under-performer improve.

That said, I may have a different opinion if I worked at an established company. I do believe that training a hardworking and passionate, yet currently underperforming individual, can translate into an A-player down the line. So if our company’s survival wasn’t at risk, spending a little more time on training could be OK. Yet in the context of our startup team, we have limited time and resources, and each individual has a strong impact on our collective success, so we cannot waste time on people that can’t independently add value to our mission.

Now, having this clarity doesn’t make it easier for me to let go of people. Every time I have to make a firing decision, I’m reminded of the impact that I have on people’s lives, not just at work, but outside. People have family obligations, bills to pay, and careers to grow. So to help, I have created a checklist of questions to help me assess whether I’ve done everything I could, and that letting go of a team member is the best outcome for both the team and the individual team member.

Have I given the team member a fair chance?

To have a clear conscience in letting go of a team member, I personally need to make sure that the individual has had a fair chance of meeting my expectations. I thus ask myself:

Have expectations been clearly set? It’s unfair to judge an individual’s performance if we’ve never communicated what is expected of them. I often resort to clear metrics to assess whether an individual is meeting expectations. For example, if I need a team member to participate more in meetings, I may set the expectation for them to speak up at least once at each group meeting, and use that count as a gauge. If there are no quantitative measures available to evaluate one’s performance, we can set SMART qualitative expectations. In my experience, setting a clear expectation with team members resolves 50%+ of performance related issues.

Do I give feedback and direction? To further clarify my expectations, I try to provide active feedback. Taking our example from above, as we try to get a team member to participate more in meetings, I would praise the team member when he or she speaks up during a meeting, and reprimand when they don’t. Feedback reinforces the importance of the expectations we set.

Have I provided adequate training? If someone is underperforming because they lack the necessary skills, then it’s my duty to provide that training. I may perform the training myself or enlist the help of a colleague with more experience. If we lack the experience inhouse, then we need to seek training externally.

If the above steps have all been taken and the individual is still not meeting my expectations, I’d seek to let them go as soon as possible. I do usually give a final warning, where I restate my expectations, where they stand in relation to that, along with a clear timeframe on when I expect to see progress. In my opinion, this helps avoid any surprises if we let go of any individual – they may be upset, but not surprised.

In the end, we need to recognize that letting go of an individual is a win-win scenario. Our team gains the opportunity to find someone new that can add value instead of being a drag. And on the other hand, the team member being let go gets a chance to find work that suits them better. It’s clearly that they are not doing something that they thrive at right now, or doing it in an environment they thrive in, so why drag it out? Nobody likes doing something they fail at. I’ve witnessed several cases where an individual becomes an A-player at a different company or another field of work after being let go. So let’s waste our time, nor other people’s time. Let’s everyone’s full potential sooner.

[NOTE: Your legal jurisdiction may have specific laws on employee termination, please consult an HR lawyer for specific advice. The content exposed in this article is only an opinion.]

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