How to decide when to fire someone

One of your direct reports isn’t performing up to snuff. You’ve done everything you can think of to help them improve, but you’re not seeing any significant progress, and now you’re agonising about what to do. Should you fire them? How can you know for sure? Is it better to take swift action? Who else should you consult? And what are the costs of delaying the decision?

Rebecca Knight, writing in the Harvard Business Review, explains her strategy for deciding how to take the hardest decision of all

What the experts say

Deciding whether to terminate an employee’s contract is hard. “It’s an emotionally difficult task,” says Jay Conger, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and co-author of The High Potential’s Advantage: Get Noticed, Impress Your Bosses, and Become a Top Leader. The decision is especially tricky if the employee in question hasn’t violated any rules and isn’t egregiously underperforming — but is clearly falling short.

“The default mode is to think that maybe this person will turn around,” he says. “So many managers have a tendency to wait and give the individual more leeway.”

If you’re concerned about an employee’s performance – but unsure of how to proceed – here are some steps to follow.

Reflect 

How do you go from having an inkling you ought to fire an employee to knowing for certain? “If you are already thinking about terminating someone, that’s a bad sign,” says Conger. “You’re standing at the edge of the diving board,” agrees Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix and author of Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. “You know it in your gut sooner than your head can catch up,” she says.

To get your brain and intuition on the same page, she recommends reflecting on a series of questions about how this individual will contribute to your organisation’s future success. “Imagine your perfect team. Is this person on it?”

Consider the root cause 

It’s also important to think about the “…root cause of the employee’s poor performance,” says Conger. Ask yourself, ‘Does this person fully understand all of their responsibilities? Have they received enough training?’

Think, too, about how you may be contributing to the problem. “Ask, ‘Is there not enough supervision? Are expectations not clear?’” Understanding the reason for your employee’s underperformance is critical for determining how you’ll approach the issue, says McCord.

Seek input 

Solo introspection is a good start, but it can often lead to a ‘confirmation bias’. “You view everything this person does in a certain light,” says Conger. To check yourself, he recommends seeking input from trusted colleagues; be judicious in your phrasing, however.

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Be transparent with the employee

Before you make a decision you need, of course, to have several conversations with the employee in question. “Be honest and respectful,” says McCord. “You want the employee to maintain their dignity.” Ideally, you’ve been having conversations about their performance all along the way and they are aware of your concerns.

Reflect on these conversations. You want to believe that this employee truly ‘owns the problem’ and that they have the ‘initiative and drive’ to solve it. If so, the employee may have a future.

Consult with HR

Conger says it’s smart to get HR involved early in this process to get their input on how to handle the situation and advice on what documentation you need should you decide to fire the person. Start by having an ‘informal conversation’ with HR in which you discuss the ‘person’s development’ and objectives.

Gather more data

Most managers want to feel that they’ve done everything they can before making the decision to fire an employee so, if you feel the employee is motivated and coachable, it can be helpful to gather more data before making a final decision. Conger suggests implementing a ‘development plan’ — not to be confused with a PIP — which should be focused on ‘three or four areas that the person needs to work on’. This plan must also include information about ‘how you’ll measure their progress in those dimensions’.

Once you’ve made your decision, don’t procrastinate

Once you’ve made a decision to terminate employment it’s important to act quickly, says Conger; there is a cost to procrastinating. “Your credibility is in question,” he says. “The team sees you stalling — it looks like you don’t have the courage to make a tough call.”

Still, remember that firing someone can have serious consequences for their livelihood and career. Try to do it as humanely as possible.

Principles to remember 

Do:

  • consider your organisation’s future business needs and whether the employee in question has the necessary skillset;
  • try to understand the root cause of the underperformance — it will give you useful information that will aid you in your decision;
  • be transparent with your employee about your concerns.

Don’t:

  • rely solely on your own observations; seek input from trusted colleagues;
  • leave HR out of the process — seek their input and advice on your decision;
  • dawdle once you’ve made the decision to fire; the cost of procrastination is high for everyone.

The full version of this edited article appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

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