It’s Unfair to NOT Fire People

Firing people has a bad rap in business. But sometimes, firing someone is the greatest gift you could give the individual impacted, as well as the remaining team members and yourself.

Leading well requires having the right people in the right roles at the right times, which means not just hiring smart, but firing smart as well.

So how do you fire smart when most decent leaders dread this essential task?

Have the right mindset

If you get paid to make tough and timely calls while casting the best team you can, you need to accept the following truth about firing: Your employee has behaved their way to the outcome they are experiencing.

Whether the circumstances are clear and require swift termination – i.e. an egregious violation of company policy – or the far more difficult circumstance, in which you are proactively choosing to upgrade talent, the employee’s behavior has influenced the outcome.

The latter scenario is far more difficult for most leaders to address because it can seem inhumane to fire someone who perhaps was a good performer, but is no longer performing, or to terminate a “B player” to make room for an “A player.”

This is precisely why leaders should be saying, “You’re fired.” If you avoid doing what needs to be done, you are also avoiding the painful reality that your inactivity will cause your top performers to lose respect for you.

No one wants to work with mediocre teammates. It’s unfair to everyone else on your team for you NOT to fire people who aren’t contributing at the level they should be.

Be smart about it

Many leaders use the lame excuse that they would have fired Joe or Sally long ago if only HR hadn’t prevented them from doing so. But when you dig deeper, typically, the leader hasn’t had the required truth-telling conversations with the under-performing employee along the way. Even if they have, they have failed to note it so that they can prove it.

Don’t make this mistake. Documenting performance conversations need not be onerous. Use Post It notes or a notes app on your phone – doesn’t matter. Just make sure to capture the issue, your message to the employee (and their response), the date/location of discussion. In today’s litigious society, it pays to be smart about this.

If the performance doesn’t improve in a reasonable amount of time, pull out your notes, summarize for your boss or HR and have the conversation with the employee.

Acknowledge that firing someone stinks

When it is time to have the dreaded conversation, remember that for most leaders, it never gets easier. It’s incredibly upsetting to sit across from another human being and deliver the ultimate rejection. This is normal, and it makes you human.

But don’t use these uncomfortable feelings as an excuse not to take action. As a leader, you are paid to be courageous. You are paid to do the hard stuff.

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Don’t avoid, deny or postpone releasing someone from a role in which they aren’t successful because you feel guilty. Often, even though it’s incredibly tough to be fired, ultimately there’s relief. Most people know when they are failing, and most people want to please their boss. When they know they can’t, or that it just isn’t working, it can be liberating to be freed from that position.

Be kind, clear and courageous

However, the employee is likely going to take the news poorly. As a leader, it’s imperative for you to think beforehand about how you are going to terminate them (where the discussion takes place, what you’ll say, what support they’ll have afterwards, how the employee’s departure will be communicated to the team, etc.).

It’ll be bad enough for the employee to go home and tell their family they’ve lost their job. It will be immensely worse if you botch the process by being heavy-handed, pompous, insensitive, overly chummy, completely absent (having HR deliver the news instead), or treating them like a criminal and frog-marching them out of the building (unless, of course, they are a criminal – in which case, take their badge and get them out).

Ask yourself how you would want to be treated if your roles were reversed, and behave accordingly.

Just do it

Firing smart requires you to be willing to actually do it. We accept tough decisions in our sports teams – players get traded, contracts aren’t renewed, etc. Yet in business, there’s lethargy and general unwillingness to courageously take action on what is generally obvious to everyone. People know when teammates aren’t cutting it.

There’s no better feeling than that of leading a team of terrific, high-performing people who respect one another. You have the ability to make that happen. And you, more than anyone else, benefit the most from having a strong team.

Your life is easier. You get better results. You are less stressed and more fulfilled. And far more likely to advance in your career.

Bottom line? It’s time you said, “You’re fired.” It’s a sign of great leadership.

Mindy Mackenzie – or the “Velvet Hammer” as she was known during her days at liquor giant Jim Beam – is currently a sought-after speaker and CEO advisor to Fortune 100 companies. She is the author of The Courage Solution: The Power of Truth Telling with Your Boss, Peers, and Team. Previously, Mindy served as Chief Performance Officer of Beam, Inc., where she was responsible for a team of 150 and was part of the executive team that led consistent out-performance and created tremendous shareholder value delivering double-digit earnings growth. Mindy also serves as a senior advisor for McKinsey and is a frequent guest lecturer for the MBA and Executive Education programs at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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