Firing Someone Can Mean You Care Enough About Them

02/12/2020 | Roger and Susie Engelau


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I talked to a business owner recently who had kept a woman as his office manager for 2 years when all along he knew she wasn’t good for his business. He hated the idea of firing someone. Finally he had the conversation with her to tell her that he was letting her go. He was astounded when, at the end of the conversation the woman said, “Thank you. You’ve given me clarity!”

Firing someone really can have a positive outcome for that person.

It takes someone who cares about people to fire people

The fact that you’re willing to have the discussion is evidence that you care more about the person than you care about yourself… because you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone and have an uncomfortable conversation.

Firing someone also says that you care about all the other people who work in your organization. They all know who the strong-performing people are and who the under-performing people are. And they’re watching you to see how you handle it.

When you keep someone around who’s under-performing, you’re constantly walking by a mistake (see January 2020 blogpost “Never Walk by a Mistake”). It devastates your high performance standards and thwarts your efforts to create a culture of accountability. It’s hard to hold anyone accountable when you’re letting even one person slide.

People want to be part of a successful team and they hold you as the leader accountable for creating an environment that allows success to happen. Under-performance is contagious. People are not likely to give it their best when they know under-performance is acceptable in your culture. The culture can only be as good as the lowest common denominator. So, firing someone creates the opportunity to add a higher-performing individual to the team plus, it’ll raise the performance of everyone else in the organization.

Do your due diligence

We believe in “fire fast and hire slow” but it’s important to do all you can to help the person be successful before firing someone. Talk to the person about what aspects of his/er performance qualify as under-performance and make sure the person is clear on expectations. Provide training and the right resources, and ensure environmental factors are right for success. Move the person to a job that you and s/he believe is a better skill match. If you’ve done all this, or if the person’s values don’t match the company’s values, it’s time for them to go.

A caring conversation

Your goal is to build a great team that does great work. Your employees’ goal is to do great work on a great team.

The key motivator during your conversation is your belief that the person could be working somewhere else where they’re valued, successful and making a difference instead of working for you where they’re feeling bad about letting the team down, letting you down, and not fulfilling their greatest potential.

We always say that you can say anything to anyone and say it respectfully. If you go into the employment termination conversation with the belief that firing someone is doing what’s right not only for your company but also for the person, the tone of the conversation will be both caring and respectful.

There’s no getting around the fact that this will be a painful conversation for the person whose employment you’re about to terminate. Spend whatever time you sense they need but this is not the time for lengthy justifications or responses to challenges about your decision. The person will need time to process the news on their own. If they’ve been employed by you for more than a couple of years, you should provide them a severance so that they have time to conduct a reasonable job search. Wish them well in their next move and if you know them well or have known them for a long time, perhaps even ask them to let you know where they land and if there’s anything you can do to support them.

While firing someone is a painful experience for a person, your compassionate mindset will guide your words and help steer the person on to an even better job experience at their next company.