'Great news! As a leader you'll never ever have to fire anyone if you're really nice!'
I don't know about you, but I kind of believed that lie at some point. Unfortunately, it's a lie. The nicest, gentlest, strongest, most charismatic leader who hires extraordinarily well will still likely have to fire someone in their career.
But it doesn't need to be a horror show for all involved.
Here are 10 practical tips to fire a difficult employee the right way:
1. Make the consequences of continued poor performance known
Once again, it helps if you've been clear, early and consistent with your small battles. There are some situations where termination has to come as a surprise. If an employee has broken key company policies or even been fraudulent.
However, in every other situation surprise should be your enemy. When you arrive at termination, it should feel to the employee that it was 'inevitable'. I can't stress this enough.
As you've had conversations along the way, make the consequences of continued poor performance crystal clear. Yes, it's uncomfortable. Yes, those conversations are awkward and upsetting. But they will set a foundation for the employee to turn things around and stay on the bus. Or for them to choose to step off the bus. Or for you to remove them from the bus.
As human beings, we want to be treated FAIRLY. Choose fair over comfortable every day of the week.
2. Take a firm decision if you don't see progress
It's tiring to hold an underperforming employee to account. But this is an everyday part of leadership. If you don't see progress and you're having small battle after small battle after small battle then take a firm decision.
In my experience, an employee who isn't changing their behaviour will often leave before needing to be fired in this situation. Or, ideally, they'll change their behaviour and step up. Make sure you've exhausted all options to move them to other roles and to understand what makes them tick.
I do believe the cliché, 'Hire slow, fire fast' is true. Our hiring process should be thorough and thoughtful. Whatever process in your organization is deeply involved, your hiring should dwarf it. It's that important.
First fast doesn't mean running around shouting that people are fired on a whim. It means if something isn't working or if someone isn't performing it's addressed directly but politely. It's addressed quickly and consistently. And if it doesn't change, everyone knows there's a runway that will run out. Don't overpromise. If you do not see any progress in the employee, make a clear decision and stick to it.
3. Recognize a Hopeless Situation
Some of you are rescuers. You are built to find people who need rescuing and to rescue them. In Christian ministry there's a great saying, "Don't hire someone to minister to them." The point is, don't hire someone JUST because you want to help them.
For you, the challenge is when you have a team member you desperately want to rescue. But they're underperforming. You are not their saviour. You are not the messiah. Stop trying to wake them up. Do everything you can to lead them with kindness. But kind sometimes means difficult conversations. If it's a hopeless situation then no-one is going to win if you prolong it for another 3 months, year or even years.
4. Know when it’s time to let them go
Sometimes you get to that point where it's necessary to let an employee go. This should be a last resort. Here is my litmus test for you:
On a scale from 0-10, how surprised will your employee be that you're letting them go?
If you score above an 8 then you should not let them go unless there is legal proven grounds for instant dismissal. If the score is between 3 and 7 then you're probably saying, "Jonno, I mean they'll probably be a bit surprised, but surely they must know it's coming." Wrong. You still have work to do!
If your score is 0, 1 or 2 then you've probably done enough work for them to know this conversation is coming. Caveat: don't try to get them to a 10 by saying, "Hey, next week I might fire you." I partly joke but I know the temptation to shortcut this process because it's painful for you, for them and for the team.
Push through the pain. Your other team members are watching like hawks. Everything you say about how you treat people will be irrelevant if you don't do this well. Take the time to get clear on expectations, hold them accountable with small battle after small battle after small battle until they change their behaviour, choose to leave or are still underperforming.
Then, when you've reached this point and you'd score them a 0, 1 or 2 because you know they won't be surprised, that's the time to let them go.
5. Dismiss the employee directly, but politely
When it comes time to let an employee go, say this mantra after me:
This. Is. Not. About. ME.
Yes, this is difficult for you. Uncomfortable? Awkward? Emotional? Sure. But it's not about you.
I heard someone talk recently about the three areas of our lives that are foundational. They said home, key relationship and work. If someone loses their home or breaks up with their life partner we know this is traumatic. Unfortunately, losing your job is in the same ballpark.
The best advice I can give you for dismissing an employee is to go back to that litmus test. If you haven't done the accountability work then it's probably going to feel unfair to your employee. They may feel surprised and ambushed on top of the trauma of losing their job.
So don't shortcut the groundwork. Then, when it comes time for the conversation, be direct. Don't make them wait. Meet as soon as you can. Tell them immediately when you meet. Be clear. Gentle, kind, yes. But people want to know. They may still be upset which is understandable. Use your emotional intelligence to decide to stay and give them time to process with you or to finish the conversation and give them time and space to process in their own way.
6. Follow company policy
The next few points are focused on leaders who are part of larger companies. Or where you may be based in a jurisdiction or industry that is highly regulated.
First, make sure you take all the previous advice but apply it within company rules and regulations. Do what the company expects you to do. Respect the way things are done in your workplace so that everyone can be successful.
If the only way to solve a problem is to end someone's job, make sure you follow the company's guidelines and procedures. Be fair and unbiased. Consult HR and legal. Have HR and legal in the room if you're in a litigious industry or jurisdiction.
Instant dismissal without notice means that someone is fired immediately and they don't get to explain why. It happens when someone does something unlawful or that violates company policies and there's no room for grace. Make sure you consult HR and legal if you find yourself in this situation. Dot your i's and cross your t's as you carry out the instant dismissal. And don't forget about the employee's wellbeing even though they've made a significant mistake.
7. Consult HR and legal within your company or HR and legal consultants
The advice to avoid shortcuts is important. But it's even more important if you have HR and legal within your company or work in a jurisdiction or industry that is highly regulated.
Take the time and invest the money to seek advice from HR and legal. The truth is, in a court of law you can't say, 'I had such great intentions,' or 'I read this great blog...'. Everything I'm writing here in this blog is not legal advice. I don't understand your context. Avoid massive trouble down the road by doing your due diligence now.
8. Hold a formal grievance or disciplinary hearing
A formal grievance or disciplinary hearing is when a person's behaviour is discussed. It can help to find out why something happened and how it can be fixed. People will talk about what the problem was and listen to each other's opinions. This may be a step required of you by company policy or HR.
9. Issue a final written warning
A final written warning may be required by your company's policy or by legislation. In some cases, multiple written warnings may be legally required prior to dismissal. I understand why this exists to protect employee rights. However, it can make some of the above processes more challenging.
If you do need to issue official warnings, make them part of your consistent accountability approach. Don't jump straight to a warning, have an expectations conversation first. Then pick small battle after small battle after small battle. Then, as you do that, written warnings could be part of your process.
10. Treat them well after you let them go
Once you fire an employee, your job isn't over. Depending on the context, there are many ways you can make a positive difference to their life. If they're an employee that just didn't work out in that role but who you would recommend for character and work ethic then be a referee and write them a reference.
Take half an hour to call a few key contacts of yours who might be able to hire them or know someone or somewhere they might be a fit. If it's amicable at the end, offer to give them some help or resources to find another job. Where possible, be generous with them to give them ongoing pay for a couple of months or similar. You certainly don't have to, but it might be the right thing to do. And your team is watching how you treat this person.
Last of all, make some contact. They probably don't want to spend Christmas with you (unless you've fired a family member!) but it's amazing how a little note, text, call or similar down the track to let them know you haven't forgotten that they exist. Even a gift card or similar with a note that say, 'Even though it didn't work out, just want you to know I appreciate you and am thankful for your time and effort with us'. It might sound trite, but if you do everything above well and end without surprise or ambush, it's worth making the extra effort to keep some positive contact.
Firing an employee can be tough, but sometimes it has to be done. It's important to be fair and follow the rules of your company. After they leave, you can still be kind and reach out. Most of all, I hope this has encouraged you to do the groundwork and avoid shortcuts! Horror stories of firing people usually involve surprise and ambush. Take those out of the equation and treat your employee fairly even when dismissing them and you'll go a long way to reducing the pain for all involved when you do have to fire someone.