I was talking to an agency owner about a standing New Years resolution he had. Before the beginning of each new year, he and his business partner had a pact that they would not have anyone on their staff that they wouldn’t rehire if given the chance. I thought it a rather elegant solution to the all-too-common problem of keeping employees around for too long. Sure, it would be better to not let a schedule dictate when you let people go, but at least the conversations are guaranteed to happen.
As a leader, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that allowing underperforming employees to stick around is the kind and generous thing to do. It’s not. It doesn’t help the business, its clients, or its other employees. It’s selfish, all because you hate having tough conversations. To put a finer point on it, here is what is happening when you don’t cut ties with an employee quickly enough:
- The work suffers. This should be obvious. Underperforming employees lead to underperforming work, even when the employee might not be directly responsible for the work. If they’re not pulling their weight, other employees have to step in and fill the gap, giving them less time to do their own jobs.
- The employee’s manager wastes time and headspace. I speak from experience here. The longer you let a direct report float by, the more time you have to run pointless “what if” scenarios in your head. You’ll also have more draining conversations with other employees explaining your (lack of) action. The emotional toll of putting off tough decisions is worth considering.
- Good employees become resentful. If employees see that someone can succeed in your firm without putting forth the effort or doing quality work, they’ll start wondering why they are working their asses off for you. In your head, try to reframe firing an employee from “something bad for the person I’m firing” into “something good for the firm in general.”
- Your culture slowly erodes. Related, but if you let underperforming employees coast consistently, that will start to show up in your culture. On the flip side, when employees see that good work is rewarded and bad work has no place, they’ll know that they’re at a company that’s worth staying at. It’s easy to think that firing an employee puts other employees on edge. More often, it sends a signal to the good employees that you’re on their side and don’t want them to spend time compensating for underperformers.
- You are standing in the way of that employee thriving. If you know that your firm will never be a great fit for a particular employee to grow and succeed, why wouldn’t you cut them loose to give them more time in their professional life to find a place better suited to them? A person only has so many “wage-earning” years ahead of them, and keeping someone around who would otherwise thrive in a different environment (or career) is also selfish.
How do you rip the band-aid off?
First, the most important thing you can do is put processes in place to make quick firing possible in the future. This means things like:
- Making sure that everyone’s job descriptions are always up to date
- Ensuring employees have individualized goals and priorities
- Keeping a written record of any evidence of poor performance or poor cultural fit
- Holding your managers accountable
A firing should never come as a surprise to an employee. If it does, that means either the employee is completely oblivious to reading signals (rare, but it happens), or you are underperforming in your own duty of sending signals (much more likely).
Now, to the matter at hand. Assuming you don’t have a great paper trail and haven’t had many conversations about poor performance yet, the first step is to have a frank conversation with the employee with your specific expectations for the role and where they are not meeting them. This doesn’t have to feel personal. It’s about what the company needs out of a particular role, not what the company needs out of a particular employee. In this discussion, tell them that if meaningful improvement is not made, the next step will be a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).
Odds are, it will come to a PIP next. This could happen in as early as 2 weeks. When developing a PIP, make sure that it is:
- Time-bound (30 days max)
- Specific (includes concrete areas of focus)
- Helpful (institute a weekly check-in so that they know they aren’t in it alone)
Sometimes, you can turn a PIP conversation into a break-up conversation. Something like this:
“Look, you have made improvements since we last spoke, but you just don’t seem happy here. And the role still needs more from you for this to make sense for the company. Do you want to go down the road of a PIP, or would you prefer to resign? I only mention this because if you resign now, we can offer some severance. If we have to have a more difficult conversation later, this will likely be off the table.”
Because you’ll be having weekly check-ins during a PIP, the result at the end shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. You should be able to part ways in good faith. Don’t make the mistake of waiting for the “right time” to fire someone. There is no right time. Waiting until after the holidays or because the employee just bought a new house doesn’t make it hurt less.
Firing someone is never fun, unless you’re heartless. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. And it’s your responsibility to make decisions in the best interests of the company, its employees, and its clients. To speak plainly, if you aren’t fighting through the stuff you hate in order to make the firm better, you aren’t leading well.