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Yesterday we talked about hiring so it’s fitting that we’ll end the week today talking about firing. Terminating employment is a tough subject for many leaders and business owners. I certainly don’t propose to make it enjoyable or pleasant. These are lives being impacted. The employee. Their family. Their co-workers. And then there’s our reputation. What will the organization think of us? What damage might we create? Many thoughts and worries swirl around in our heads.
Right off the bat let’s set aside some basic non-negotiables. That is, there are some things that will prompt a termination and it’s just how it has to be. Period. No room for negotiation or discussion once the facts have been established. That’s an important detail — we have to establish facts and know the truth of a situation. Theft, criminal behavior, sexual harassment, drug or alcohol use on the job (sort of fits in criminal behavior, but you’ll have to determine your policy), violence in the workplace…maybe you’ve got some additional ones. I know business owners who will negotiate these depending on the severity of the infraction. Let’s say a couple of warehouse employees get into a fist fight, but nobody is hurt. Some leaders will keep one or both employees and put them on probation. Others will fire the employee who threw the first punch. So to declare these “non-negotiables” as black and white isn’t quite how it rolls. You have to decide how you’re going to operate your company. But for today’s show, I’m not talking about any of these kinds of behaviors. I’m going to narrow it to performance. Just how well are they doing their job? That’s it.
Clear expectations, clear and prompt feedback followed by support, support, support!
Every employee terminated for poor performance should see it coming.
It’s inexcusable for a leader to fire an employee who never saw it coming. That means there hasn’t been nearly enough clear, candid communication.
At the first sign that things are going well, the employee must be informed. Speed and timeliness are important. We can’t correct our children if we wait a week after seeing them misbehave, then we try to correct them. No, we have to do it in the moment. In real time. You must do the same thing. Sooner is always better.
Let’s suppose you’ve got an employee with attendance issues. Yes, that’s a performance issue. Not being at work when they’re scheduled is poor performance. As soon as you sense there *may* be a problem, take action. Have a conversation with them. There’s no reason to avoid having a conversation.
Sit down with them and express your concern. Be respectful. Don’t draw a conclusion. Seek to find out what’s going on. Listen. Ask questions.
You may find out something is going on that you knew nothing about. It may be something you can help the employee solve. Or it may be something they alone have to handle.
Figure that out with them. Reiterate the importance of them doing their job well. Reinforce your expectation that they succeed. And your commitment to helping them. But put the proper amount of the burden on their decision and action to make it so.
I’m a fan of documentation. Not for being formal, but for making things as clear as possible. I hate ambiguity and confusion. So I’m prone to write up and document what’s happening and having the employee sign it. If the documentation is based on the mutual understanding of the dialogue, then there’s no reason for the employee to feel uneasy signing it. It should include a clear outline of the actions you both agree to take. The conversation should end with you both committing to move forward and resolving the issue. If the employee won’t commit to that, you may as well ask them to resign or push forward to end the relationship (yes, consult your state laws and your HR or legal professional).
Hopefully, both of you can agree to give it the effort it deserves. You or somebody you entrusted hired this person, seeing something valuable in them. Let’s put in the work to achieve success.
Now, the employee knows the problem. You understand the problem. We’re all together on what has to happen for success to be achieved. We all know what success will look like, and what failure will look like. And we know when we’ll sit down together again to formally discuss this.
There’ll be feedback all along the way as necessary, but within 30 days or so another sit-down conversation happens to access any progress. If the employee’s performance improves, mission accomplished. If it doesn’t, then it’s time to impress the gravity of the situation. Talk about what has worked, and what hasn’t. Together figure out why things aren’t succeeding. Discuss what must happen in order for this employee to continue being on the team. Be clear. Again, make it clear about what you (the leadership) will do. You’re making a commitment to serve this employee and help them. Make it clear what they must do. Get them to commit to it.
Document the meeting. This will be your first or if you roll the way I do, your second documentation. Employees only feel like you’re building a case against them if they’re failing. And if they’re failing, they’re right. You are. But the goal should be to avoid failure. You can’t live people’s lives for them though. Your employees have to make up their own mind and choose their own behavior. Your role is to provide support, service, training, feedback, and accountability.
I’ve never practiced issuing the third documentation. My preference has been to be very clear in the second meeting that the next time we meet it will be to congratulate them on turning things around, or it’ll be to part ways. But I assure them conversations will be forthcoming along the way so we’re both clear on which direction things are headed. I want no confusion or blind-siding. It’s unfair when we’re terminating employees for performance failures.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you make a good hire, and other times you quickly realize you got it wrong. The key to firing people worthy of being fired is to do it fast. There’s too much at stake to put it off. You’ll kill the morale of high performers. You’ll foster bitterness in the employee who has it coming. There’s just nothing good that can come from putting off terminating a poor performer.
I’m a dog lover. In fact, I’m part of a board of advisors for the Westie Foundation of America, a non-profit dedicated to the promotion of the health of White West Highland Terriers. Sadly, I’ve had to put a few dogs down. Years ago when I first had to do it, I didn’t do it quickly enough. I learned from it. I vowed that it was selfish to wait so long. So I never did it again. Better to do it too soon. I feel the same way about firing poor performers. Delay serves no useful purpose. And mostly it’s done because we’re cowards, hoping to avoid the confrontation. Don’t view it like that. It’s an opportunity for you both to end a relationship that clearly isn’t working for either you. Time for them to find a better home. Time for you to operate a better home. It’s an opportunity for you both to grow, learn and improve.
Be well. Do good. Grow great!