Performance Management

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How to fire someone (like a grown-up)

How to fire someone (like a grown-up)

When I started writing this post, the title was slightly different. It actually started off as just ‘How to fire someone’.

There isn't a 'best way to fire someone'. It’s something I’ve had to do more than a couple of times over the last few years, and over that time I’ve definitely learned a lot.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised how simplistic it is to think in the terms set out in that title. All those phrases that we use to describe being asked to leave a business  – ‘I was fired’, ‘I got the sack’, or even ‘I was let go’ – give the impression of it being a singular event. It refers to a one-off conversation where it was decided that person should no longer work there.

Firing someone isn’t a single event. It is just one conversation within what should be an ongoing process of monitoring, communication and feedback – a process that begins the moment that hire walks through the door on their first day.

I’m reminded of this great comment from the People Collective's Matt Bradburn earlier this year:

This is such a classic scenario.

Perhaps it's a good time to have a look at how you can do personal development for managers to help you along the way.

People don’t become unacceptably bad performers overnight.

If someone’s performance is not up to scratch, it’s likely to have been the case for a while – months, if not longer. What has happened here is just an example of bad management, and it happens way too often.

It’s just bad communication. Here’s how it plays out:

An employee is underperforming. Maybe the quality of their work is simply below par, or perhaps it’s something behavioural. Their manager allows it to go unchecked. Either there aren’t established opportunities for feedback to be given (like one to ones or 360 degree reviews) or they do exist and the manager shies away from that difficult conversation.

Either way, the underperformance continues – most likely because the team member doesn’t even know they are underperforming. This carries on for a few months. The rest of the team knows and starts to feel frustrated. Why should they strive to deliver their best when mediocrity goes unchallenged?

Eventually, things come to a head. The underperformance becomes impossible to ignore, and there’s nothing to do but to let that under-performer go. Only thing is, the person in question is probably the last to hear about it.

The real kicker here is that this was probably avoidable. An awkward conversation a few months ago could have helped them to correct course – and now you’re going to have more than just an awkward conversation.

This leads me onto the first rule I have for when it comes to letting someone go like a grown-up:

1 - Being fired should never be a surprise

If it is, it’s down to your own oversight as a manager. I’ve said this before, but performance – especially underperformance – should be a topic of continuous feedback.

If someone's performance is not up to scratch, then they need to be the first person to know about it. Give that person all the help and opportunity you can for them to course-correct themselves.

No one likes a surprise! If you fail to communicate properly in advance, then you can expect the person you’re letting go to react badly when they finally do hear it. They will be emotional, and understandably so.

I’m not writing this post to show people how to go about firing someone quietly, without ‘causing a scene’. That’s not what this is about. It’s about giving that person the information they need to deal with what is happening with dignity.

As an extra tip, we strongly encourage you to put performance development plans into place for each of your employees so they have a clear view of what they need to achieve.

2 - Communicate formality

If you have followed that process of expectation setting and feedback, and still reached that point where you’re forced to think about someone’s future, then you need to signpost that thought process to the individual.

Here are a few different ways we communicate this at Charlie:

  1. We’re a pretty informal company. If we need to talk to someone about their role at the company, then we make sure that invitation reflects the formality of the situation. By this point, it’s not a casual catch up – so don’t treat it as such.
  2. Be clear on what is going to happen in that meeting. We’ll always mention in the invitation that we’re planning on conducting a “review about their continued employment at Charlie”.  
  3. We’ll offer them the opportunity to bring an observer to that meeting.
  4. Typically, we’ll have two meetings. The first will be used to formally explain that we’re considering their future at the business, and the process behind that decision. The second will be when we communicate the outcome of our decision, and what needs to take place off the back of it.

This might well sound a little bit impersonal – I get that. It’s definitely not the tone I like to strike when I work with my team day-to-day. But while it might come across a little harsh, I promise you that both parties will come out of this appreciating the bread crumbs that you’ve laid along the way.

3 - Use your heart

I think the days that leave the most lasting impression on your team are their first and their last. How this conversation plays out is going to go a long way towards dictating how they remember you and how you run your company – so to take the opportunity to think with your heart and show some empathy towards the person on the other side of the table.

  • Think about where you have those meetings. If there is a chance that emotions are going to run high, think about doing it away from the rest of your team. Try finding a space on a different floor, or heading out of the office altogether.  
  • Don’t have that meeting slap bang in the middle of the day and make someone traipse back to their desk to in front of their former colleagues. After the end of the working day is usually a kinder time for this conversation.
  • Think about how you can make this difficult day a bit less painful. Why not offer to pack up their desk for them and have it couriered over to them? Or give them the chance to pick up their things at the weekend?

They might not at the time, but they’ll see the compassion once emotions have cleared.

A large part of this is just about being as good a person as you can, but don’t forget that past team members are often your biggest source of team members in the future. Don’t give anyone a reason to talk negatively about your company.

4 - Be clear & respectful

Letting someone go has repercussions for everyone who remains at the business. That person will have made friends during their time at work – those relationships make it difficult to feel neutral about the fact they are leaving.

With that in mind:

  • Communicate quickly...

People talk, and it’s likely that the person you’ve just let go will still talk with those still in your team. So be upfront about your decision as quickly as you can.

  • ...communicate in person...

Take on the responsibility of communicating this verbally to the team. Don’t hide behind an email – it’s important to show that these decisions are not taken lightly.

  • ...but always follow up.  

I’ll always follow up afterwards with an email to the whole company. It’s unlikely that everyone will be in the room when I make that announcement, so an email will help put any rumours to bed early on.

It would be naive of me to ignore the internal value that comes from asking a consistent underachiever to leave Charlie. It is probably the starkest illustration of the expectations we have of our team, and for that reason I don’t sugar coat this explanation – I simply explain that their performance was not of the standard that we expect at Charlie.

But equally, this isn’t an opportunity to drag someone’s name through the metaphorical dirt. You don’t have to grandstand – be fair to the person leaving.

5 - Get the details right

This is just about tying up all those loose ends – early stage startups can be a hectic and rough around the edges with their processes, but don’t let that be an excuse for making silly mistakes.

Make sure you’re always on the right side of the law with your firing process. Things like a notice period and paying out for unused holiday are basic things that you really need to get right.

6 - Remember – it’s not big or cool

Let’s be honest here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking being able to fire someone is somehow impressive or cool. There’s a whole television franchise based around the idea, and its most recognisable proponent even made it to the White House.

This is where that ‘like a grown up’ aspect becomes really important.

Just because you have the power to do something doesn’t mean you need to relish your ability to wield it, or should wield it lightly.

How many CEOs out there secretly enjoy the ego boost that comes with all that power?  Why are there so many stories of people being fired by email? Or over the phone? Or with so little feedback or ability to engage in a conversation? That’s a childish way to run a business.

Every time I’ve had to ask someone to leave Charlie, it’s been a gutting experience. And whenever it’s happened, I’ve tried my hardest to help them think about where their next role might be.

So do the right, hard thing – if you’re going to fire someone, do it like a grown up.

Maybe have a look at our tons of other resources when it comes to performance management:

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