Hard Decisions – Firing Someone

By nature I’m truly an optimist when it comes to people.  I want to think that I have a good instinct for making good hiring decisions.  Sure, I hire for skills.  But what I really look for deep down is ambition, drive, intelligence, and more than anything, a great attitude.  However, all that goes straight out the window when for some reason your employee starts pressing the self-destruct button.  Sometimes repeatedly.  Is there ever a good reason as to why?  Over the years I’ve seen it happen too many times.  A stellar employee, often on a good track, just starts going in the opposite direction.

I’m always a big believer is a good disciplinary program, with documentation of course.  However, despite being written up, having detailed “what’s going on with you?” conversations, these people just turn down the wrong path of life and keep on truckin’.  I’ve never understood that.

On the other hand, I’ve had plenty of people work for me that when confronted, other things come out of the woodwork that have been affecting their job performance.  Trouble at home, personal relationship issues, poor health of a family member, monetary problems, etc.  That glazed over look of apathy in their eyes, sometimes is a tell-tale sign that their brain is working overtime on a bigger challenge than whatever they have to do with their job.  This is where if you’ve built up trust or an inkling of a personal relationship with them, they might share with you what the real story is.  The one that’s keeping them up at night.  All night.

Don’t forget though, that maybe their performance issues are due to circumstances with your company.  Are they in a position where they aren’t qualified?  Not enough training?  Some sort of personnel conflict with their department staff or manager?  Could you move them to another department and start them on a different track towards success?

At the end of the day though, it’s your job to weigh their job performance and history versus their current trajectory.  Can they be saved?  Maybe a leave of absence, or a few days at home without pay is enough to get them back on track and see that you want them to understand they are jeopardizing their future with your company.  Your company can’t afford to keep them if they aren’t performing, especially if their screw-ups are costing you money and emotional damage to your customer base.

The hardest part is cutting your losses, despite knowing these stories.  You have to do it though.  Firing someone is never easy, but here are some tips that I use when I have to get that task accomplished:

  1. Document everything.  Make sure you have all of your facts straight and everything is on paper.  If you’ve written them up and are practicing progressive disciplinary procedures, the employee probably won’t be surprised that the termination is coming.  If your management staff is doing their job, they are already in front of the challenges and have been keeping a close watch on the situation.
  2. Get help.  You don’t have to do it alone.  It’s always a good idea to have someone else in the room with you too, to prevent any crazy accusations later.  If you have a HR manager or another department manager available those are great people to have in your corner.  Have a pre-termination meeting and discuss the details.
  3. Make a plan.  Don’t just do it off the cuff.  Have your paperwork ready, set a time.  Jot down some notes or an outline and plan what you are going to say.  Make it short and sweet.  This is a meeting that should not last but a few minutes.  Present facts and focus on the performance or work related issues.
  4. Expect everything.  There could be an argument, a physical confrontation, tears…etc.  Stay calm and know how you are going to react to those.  This is another reason why it’s good to have a third person in the room.
  5. Control the room.  You are in charge.  Be brief and professional.  It’s not a debate or an argument, and don’t let it turn into one.  Chances are they may not agree with your decision to terminate them.
  6. Your employee is a person.  They are going to react like one, and you should treat them like one.  Give them facts, and help them with the transition by having all the details covered.  Tell them that they will be mailed their last paycheck.  Help them collect their belongings in private.  Have HR give them their prepared financial, COBRA, and other information.
  7. Try to end on a positive note.  Say thank you and offer to shake their hand.  They may not want it, but that’s ok.

If you have to terminate an employee, but don’t have any experience it’s best to always do it today.  Don’t wait until tomorrow.  It doesn’t get better the more you put it off.  There isn’t a good time, and the meeting will be the same regardless of day of the week or time of day.  Just do it.

Afterwards be sure to meet with the other person that is in the room with you and review everything that just transpired.  If you had to do it again, would you change anything?  Did you leave anything out by accident?  Unfortunately, over time you’ll have to do this more than once if you are working in a management position.  If you remember to remain calm, project a positive and professional demeanor and focus on the facts and details of the event, you will do ok.

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