Manager Series, Part 5: Reasons to Fire an Employee
This is Part 5 of a 7-part series on management best practices, tips and tricks, and what not to do.
Part 1 starts with the basics of being in management, and how to be a good manager.
Part 2 teaches you how to conduct a good employee performance evaluation.
Part 3 covers getting good job performance from your employees.
Part 4 gives you ways to manage difficult employee conversations.
Part 6 shows you how to fire someone properly.
Part 7 talks about how to tell the remaining members of your team that someone has been fired.
To fire, or not to fire … that is the real question.
Here’s how to get to the right answer.
When you’re a manager, you do a lot of talking. Some days, it might feel like you spend countless hours having countless conversations with countless people. But the one we’re going to focus on in this article — the one that might be the hardest of them all — is an internal conversation, party of one:
“Should I fire this person?”
Letting an employee go has a big impact on the organization, on them, and on you.
And we’re going to pause here, for a minute, on the “you” part. Too many people learn about firing from watching movies, where it’s used as a hard-turn plot point. Like many things, how it goes in the movies bears no resemblance to reality. You know those scenes when someone walks into a room and gleefully yells “You’re fired!” at 20 people? That’s psychotic behavior for effect.
In the real world, though, firing someone — especially the first few times you have to do it — is a nightmare inside a nightmare. It’s spiders on your face while you’re giving a big public speech without notes and your crush is making out with their new partner in the front row. It’s sleepless nights and second-guessing and choking back tears while your employee pleads for you to reconsider.
And, if you’re reading this, it’s likely that your business is small enough for another layer of complexity — knowing that the person you’re going to fire is someone you see at work every single day. You know they’re allergic to cilantro and that they have a cat they rescued from a storm drain. They always laugh at your dumb jokes, and one time they brought in homemade snickerdoodles. They’re a person — not a collection of performance metrics — and your choice here will likely mean that they’ll struggle paying bills next month.
It’s for all these reasons and more that firing someone is probably the hardest thing a manager ever has to do. (Anyone who says otherwise has either never done it or has some serious empathy issues.) It’s completely normal to feel like sh!t about the entire situation, and it’s okay to sit with those emotions.
One thing it’s not okay to do is to push them aside — at least, not completely. As much as you may want to take the “it’s just business” approach, the best decision must be based on every input available, and that includes feelings.
And if you’ve reached the point where your feeling is that an employee is no longer working out, then you likely already have your answer.
It’s probably time.
The Firing Thought Process
To make the best choice, it’s important to understand how this thought process commonly works. It usually starts with a big question:
“Is their performance bad enough? Is it fire-ably bad?”
The first step toward an answer here is to compare the employee’s performance to their MAP. Based on what you see, is this person meeting the minimally acceptable performance standard?
Answer: Yes, they are meeting the minimum.
If this is your conclusion, you’ll want to reflect on why you’re thinking about firing this person. Is it actually based on measurable behavior, or is it more belief-centered? If you can’t put your finger on why, but the employee is meeting the job criteria, then firing them could land you in ethical — and maybe even legal — trouble.
(Rule #1: You can’t fire someone because they don’t fully believe in the company’s mission, or because they skip happy hour.)
Answer: Yes, but …
If the answer is “Yes, they’re meeting the minimums, but I think I set the bar too low,” there’s likely an error in the employee’s MAP. You may want to revisit it, update it to more accurately reflect what you need, then share the changes with the employee.
(Rule #2: You have to give them an opportunity to meet the MAP before you fire them.)
If your employee just isn’t meeting the minimums, the next step is to ask yourself if you’ve actually told them — out loud — that they’re in danger of losing their job, along with specific guidance and feedback on how to improve.
Here’s a good way to do this. Many employees are stunned when they’re fired because, as far as they knew, their performance was fine and nobody had told them they were doing anything wrong. Revert back to the previous chapter, where we cover how to have this type of conversation.
If you haven’t told them, now’s the time. (Rule #2 applies here, too.) But if you’ve already had this conversation and the employee has failed to make the behavioral changes necessary to meet their MAP, it’s time to let them go.
Real life, though.
Sounds easy on paper, but the reality isn’t so cut and dried. External and internal factors will always be at play, managers are only human, and thoughts can quickly get muddled. For example:
- I’ve never fired anybody before, and I’m scared I’m going to mess it up.
I hear you. This is real. And we’ve got your back. The entire next chapter is dedicated to talking you through the process and helping you understand how to do it with compassion and kindness. Read on.
- They’re best friends with a key employee, and I don’t want to lose that employee.
When this is the case, the how of firing matters a great deal (that’s covered here), but if you avoid firing one employee over fear of losing another, well, that’s not an employment situation — that’s a hostage situation. Letting an underperforming employee hold you hostage to another employee is a lose-lose for everybody.
- They have some key skill that will be very hard to replace.
This is very common and absolutely needs to be addressed before you fire someone. The first step is to specifically identify the skill you’ll need to replace, then ask yourself these questions:
- Is there someone else in the company who can learn the skill/take it over?
- Can I learn the skill “well enough” to cover until we get a replacement hire?
- Can we hire someone else with that skill prior to firing the person?
- The person with the key skill is refusing to teach the skill to anybody else.
This is also common. And in this situation, it’s best to get a “yes” to one of the above questions, then rip the Band-Aid off. Why? Because an employee who’s refusing to pass along knowledge is a ticking bomb in your company, and you need to get rid of it before it explodes. (It’s also better to deal with what is likely to be a painful situation on your own terms.)
- Okay, but I REALLY LIKE this person! I know if they tried harder, they could do it!
One of my favorite managers once said of an underperforming employee, “I’m tired of hitting him over the head with his own potential.” It doesn’t matter how much you like someone, or how much they might could maybe one day be able to do something. If they’re not doing it, and not making the changes to do it, then you must fire them.
- Okay, but they ARE making the changes … it’s slow, but they’re putting in the effort.
The devil here is in the details — how much effort are they actually putting in? Are they giving 100%? Or are they struggling with 1% while you carry the other 99%? If so, that’s neither workable nor fair, especially to you and other employees you’re managing.
Your struggling employee should be putting in at least 50% of the effort to make a change — anything less isn’t enough. If you spend seven hours training them, for example, and they get 1% better, are you going to spend another 17 straight weeks doing nothing but training them to get them to 100%? No. Fire them and move on.
- It’s not really their fault. I didn’t set them up to succeed, and now their morale is down. But it’s my problem.
If this is the reality, then you should absolutely own up to your mistakes and apologize. But then you need to hit the reset button, tell them clearly what your expectations are, and move forward with better perspective. If that results in the changes you need, great! But if they’re too far “out” due to disillusionment, you’re still going to have to fire them — even if it was your fault that they got that way to begin with. It will suck, and you’ll likely feel guilty. But the key is to learn a big lesson from it and do better the next go-round.
- I promoted them too quickly, and they can’t handle the new job. Can I just put them back in the old one?
The answer here is: Sometimes, but that suggestion isn’t likely to go over well — especially if they’ll need to give up the pay raise that presumably came with the advancement. If you want to have this conversation, assume beforehand that it’s going to end with them either quitting or being fired, and be sure to have plans in place before you bring it up. In rare instances, though, they might be perfectly okay with going back to what they were good at, too.
- I’m literally afraid to fire this person. They have a lot of guns and anger issues.
This is a huge topic and far outside the scope of this article, but it’s certainly relevant in today’s climate. If you’re concerned that firing someone may lead to violence, please consider reading “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. This book addresses the topic in-depth and is strongly recommended.
Is There a “Good” Way to Fire Someone?
The short answer is no. But, unless you have concerns for your physical safety, firing someone will be over after an uncomfortable couple of minutes — especially if you have the right toolkit (and mindset) for going about it.
Read on and learn how to fire someone
Manager Series, Part 1: What No One Ever Told You About Being a Manager
Manager Series, Part 2: How to Write an Employee Performance Review
Manager Series, Part 3: How to Get Your Employees to Give You What You Need
Manager Series, Part 4: Techniques for Managing Challenging Conversations
Manager Series, Part 6: How to Fire Someone
Manager Series, Part 7: Telling Your Team Someone Was Fired