How to Fire an Employee

Posted on March 14, 2012.

How often have you inherited a team and wondered how someone had survived so long? Or received glowing references from a peer who clearly just wanted to get rid of their problem employee? 

Failing to make the hard decisions and remove people that aren’t performing is a failure in leadership. It’s never easy. But leaving someone in a job they can’t perform is far worse.

Before you fire anyone, make sure you know the law and your company policies. Unless there’s a contract or bargaining agreement, most people fall under “employment at will”, meaning you can fire someone for any reason as long as it doesn’t meet the definition of wrongful termination. Assuming you are free to remove your non-performer, what’s the best way to handle it?

Start by delivering real time feedback. Unless your employee is told where they’re failing, they won’t know or won’t admit it.  Every time a deadline is missed, or the work product is unsatisfactory, you must tell them.  Explain exactly what’s wrong and what was expected. Employ the feedback loop so everything is in real time. If there is any chance to improve performance and modify behaviors, it’s by using a feedback loop.

Document your expectations. This is most people’s “go to” reason for keeping poor performers. They just don’t want to do the heavy lifting.   Use something as simple as a one page counseling form.  Write down exactly what’s required and when it needs to be completed. Be specific. If you want them to increase their sales calls, tell them you want xx number of calls within 30 days. Keep the timeline as tight as possible. Make sure you document the consequences.  If they fail to meet a certain percentage of the tasks, make sure they understand that being fired is the outcome.    

Discuss alternatives.  If you have someone who breaks the law or violates your code of conduct, you can fire them on the spot.  But chances are that’s not the case.  So keep in mind that these are not bad people, just a bad match between the skills needed and what your employee possesses. So treat them with respect.  Ask them to articulate their ideal job and try to help them discover a better fit.  Believe it or not, most people don’t strive to be mediocre at their job. Most people really want to be successful. If you help them reach that same conclusion, you may be able to avoid the actual firing.

Once they’re gone, you’ll be surprised how many people come up and thank you. People that never wanted to say anything will congratulate you for finally doing the right thing and making the hard decision.  One poor performer can drag a whole team down and create lower morale and de-motivation.  You will soon realize that firing an individual is painful, but keeping them is even more destructive.