As a fly fisherman, I once got into a precarious situation when I refused to back off a river. I was fishing with my husband, George, and put us both in danger by ignoring the generator schedule. On this particular tailwater, the middle of the river is a dangerous place when the second generator starts cranking. With a compressed sciatic nerve in my right leg, I was hobbling at best and should have stayed close to shore. But George was outfishing me!
My watch alarm sounded to let me know the second generator would be kicking in. I hit snooze. Again. And again. Suddenly I was surrounded by surging water, trying to balance on the tip of a jagged rock. If he’d been on his own, George could have easily made it to shore, but he knew I needed help. Instead of getting upset because I’d been foolish, he remained calm, came up with a plan, and told me we were about to take a swim.
Denial held me in place when I needed to act, which is something that can happen when we need to terminate an employee for performance but we procrastinate.
Why Performance-Based Termination is Hard
One of the most difficult situations a leader encounters is terminating an employee. You’ve outlined, coached, defined and clarified, but—change isn’t happening and you’re experiencing a lot of tension and angst over it. You procrastinate by focusing on what you can’t change:
- I didn’t even hire him. I was promoted, and he was already here.
- But I gave the final approval to bring her on board, and she moved 2,000 miles with her family to take the job!
- He’s been with the company for years, but the business model has changed, and he doesn’t want to change with it.
All the while, you continue to receive complaints from top performers. Costly errors and problems continue to happen. Your credibility as a leader begins to erode. The alarm keeps going off, and you keep hitting snooze. I get it; letting someone go at work—even a poor performer—is never easy.
I started managing people when I was seventeen and worked for McDonalds and I stayed in leadership roles until I resigned from my corporate VP position a few years ago. I still remember every person I fired, and a few stand out:
- A woman got cancer after she was hired. She was transferred into my department when another manager left. Her performance was dismal long before she was diagnosed, but her manager hadn’t taken action.
- One employee was a single mom. I’d mentored and helped her get a promotion. She was capable and competent, but her attitude changed with the promotion: she became unteachable and entitled. Her negativity affected other employees.
- I promoted someone into management but within a month it was clear that he didn’t have the skills to manage other people. He was also the sole provider for his young family.
Why We Hesitate to Fire Someone
These situations stand out because in each case, I didn’t act soon enough. I could offer a lot of different reasons, but the bottom line? I let my feelings lead my decisions. When we care about the people we work with, we feel responsible for them. As humans, we typically don’t like confrontation, so we make excuses to avoid it. We justify our actions by telling ourselves we’re being gracious: we’re giving the other person more chances. Or we let them stay because we feel guilty.
Why Good Leaders Don’t Hesitate to Let Someone Go
What I came to realize is that allowing poor attitudes or performance to continue isn’t showing love or care toward those employees. As leaders and managers, we’ve been entrusted to steward the people God has placed in our care. This includes being truthful and providing guidance, but it also includes taking action when necessary.
It’s not kind or humane to allow a person to become isolated or gossiped about. Addressing the problem may not feel good, but we have to put others—the employee and the company—ahead of our own feelings. That’s how we honor the position we’ve been entrusted with.
Firing an Employee: Tips for Letting Go
A couple in a raft rescued me and George just as we were about to embark on our dicey exit. Unfortunately, leaders who are faced with terminating an employee don’t have such an out. But there is a three-step process you can follow to help you move forward:
Step 1: Accept where you are. Regardless of whether you hired the person or not, the employee is at a place where he or she is no longer contributing to the organization. This is a painful place for the employee and you. Reflection is important, but don’t avoid the present by dwelling on the past.
Step 2: Recognize your responsibility to the employee and the company. You’ve done your due diligence, and the results haven’t changed. Create a final plan and have your boss or human resources hold you accountable to follow through. It’s up to you take the next steps. You have to create a plan to get off the rocks.
Step 3: Act sooner than later. Dragging out the process creates tension in the workplace. The employee suffers, the business suffers, and your reputation suffers. Some leaders believe that taking quick action with non-performers is less humane than watching them become isolated as they lose respect in the workplace. I have yet to understand that reasoning. The water will continue to rise, and the stakes will get higher for everyone.
There are days when leading people is like a perfect day on the river: we make good judgment calls, things go according to plan, and at the end of the day—it’s incredibly rewarding. There are other days when we’re faced with a worst-case scenario, whether by our own design or someone else’s. When that happens, it’s important to accept where we are, recognize our responsibility, and act.
Successful leaders have the courage to take action while others hesitate.
I learned my lessons about timely firing the hard way, and conversations with other managers and leaders indicate that this topic remains a challenging one. If you could use some biblical advice and practical steps to take when firing someone, here’s a post that may help: