The agony and the agony: firing an employee

This may be the hardest posting to write so far, but it is a necessary bookend to my other recent posts about hiring. It’s hard to write because actually firing anyone is hard: it’s emotional and full of moments of self-doubt, before and after. And I can only scratch the surface of the subject here in a normal-length post.

Terminating people is, of course, a necessary part of any senior manager’s responsibilities, but it never gets easier. It affects people’s lives, families, careers, self-esteem. I’m going to focus here on performance-related terminations, not on general staff layoffs (“RIFs”, or “Reductions in Force”, as they now seem to be universally called). And I won’t be talking too much about the nuts and bolts of how to do it most effectively or kindly; see the Lagniappe section below for some helpful tips from others on that subject.

Donald Trump aside, concluding that you’re going to terminate someone because of his or her performance is never a snap decision (or at least it shouldn’t be). Being a manager is primarily a people job, and people are, well, difficult at times. Technical people may be especially so: extremely bright, specialized, independent, resistant to coaching. Nearly everyone in a technology role has the ability to contribute in some form, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the job in the first place, or (at least) your decision wouldn’t involve quite as much anguish. Determining, conclusively, that the downsides of dealing with a problem employee outweigh the upsides of his or her contribution: that, in my experience, is the tough part.


There are really three sorts of individual that are under discussion here, when it comes to considering termination:

  1. People who can’t do the job. In some cases, they may have been prematurely elevated into the position (“the Peter Principle“, however unfortunately that may be named); in other cases, the role may have outgrown them. If you can’t identify a clear path to upgrading the individual’s skills and/or temperament so that they can do the job, your decision is clear.
  2. People who won’t do the job. Sometimes these are people who have simply lost their motivation or become complacent. They’ve stopped striving for excellence, stopped looking for ways to push the envelope. They’re just putting in the hours. In my view, it’s worthwhile to take at least one run at understanding and turning this behavior around.
  3. People with behavioral problems affecting how they do the job.

Examples:

  • spreading bitterness, gossip, negativity, or frequently manipulating others
  • out-and-out HR-worthy behavior (sexual harassment, anger towards fellow workers, behavior unbecoming their position)

Many times, it turns out in these cases that it’s usually something affecting them outside the workplace, in their personal life. Every case here is different and all of them touchy; your HR department should be your closest ally as you work through the nuances.

A word of warning for the first two categories: be especially careful of the “devil you don’t know” syndrome. In your own executive urge to “shake things up”, make sure you’re not focusing on symptoms rather than root causes. In other words, does the reason for the employee’s lack of productivity possibly lie elsewhere in the organization? Perhaps they’re being whipsawed by conflicting stakeholders and themselves don’t have the seniority or perspective to recognize (or fix) that. It’s easy to make almost anyone fail, if the organization consistently neglects to give them fertile ground to succeed. Do some soul-searching here; is there anything that you could do to help this employee succeed?

The key point I’d like to make, philosophically, is that firing someone should never be done lightly. It should always be tough; it should always cause you to lose some sleep before and after. I’ve worked in companies where I’ve seen executives almost strut with pride at their own toughness, as exemplified by the number of people they’ve fired, and I reject that kind of attitude. Firing people should never be a source of pride, a “notch on one’s belt” type of thing. Citing as rationale that “we’re Darwinists here at this company” is not acceptable. It’s possible to strive doggedly for excellence while remaining aware of the huge responsibility that stems from being responsible for others’ livelihood.

The danger, you see, is that for some people, firing an employee just comes easier than having to actually manage that employee to produce good work. Yes, it’s necessary to terminate people from time to time. But termination, absent any unambiguous “for cause” grounds, should always be after solid attempts to work with the individual on whatever gaps are causing the concern. This means coaching, counseling, frequent talks. Doing so isn’t just a way to avoid lawsuits; it’s simply the right thing to do.

Lastly, expect ripples, no matter what, no matter how justified. Every one of your staff has friends and allies in the company. Even if everyone already knows that there was a problem situation with the person you’ve terminated, there will inevitably be some element of staff upheaval, concern, even paranoia. Stay on top of it.

Lagniappe:

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