There's been a lot of chatter lately about feedback vs. feedforward. Words matter. I don't…
Firing people is not easy, either emotionally or legally. At companies where it’s too easy to fire people, bad/unfair firing decisions get made, with the result that even people who are great at their jobs start to get spooked.
When people feel that kind of fear, they start to avoid taking risks. They learn less, they grow less, they innovate less, and they become less than they could be.
This is the opposite of personal growth management.
Other companies make the opposite mistake: they make firing people damn near impossible. In these companies, bosses have one hand tied behind their backs.
Some address performance issues by foisting failing team members on unsuspecting colleagues, which creates bizarre office politics.
Those who are doing the best work also wind up having to carry people who are not able to contribute—and often quit in frustration as a result.
Those who are not able to contribute realize it doesn’t really matter and stop even trying. The gravitational pull of organizational mediocrity sets in.
Firing people is not the same as laying people off.
A layoff is a reflection of a management failure. It is not a reflection of employee performance. It is a reflection of management’s performance.
Leaders at your company failed to anticipate a change in market conditions or they simply overhired and so must lay people off or face going out of business.
On the other hand, getting fired is generally a reflection of a person’s performance in that job. But getting fired is not a judgment of them as a human being. That job may just not have been a great job for them—they are no doubt better at something else. Or maybe their manager was ineffective.
Firing people is hard, and it ought to be hard. But if you do four things, you can make it far, far easier on the person you are firing—as well as on yourself and your team.
Don’t wait too long to fire people
Virtually all managers I’ve ever worked with have been far too slow to admit when somebody on their team is starting to underperform.
They won’t admit it to themselves, let alone to their bosses or to HR.
When I teach management classes, I often ask people to put names in quadrants on the talent management grid. I tell them there are no consequences. They don’t have to share this with anyone.
This is a purely mental exercise. After everyone has finished I ask, “How many of you think there are some underperformers at this company?” Generally, all the hands go up.
Then I ask, “How many of you put a single name in one of the two ‘poor performance’ boxes?”
Generally, only a couple of hands go up. A few people will laugh, but everyone is always very eager to move on.
I force them to sit there until everyone has put names in the underperforming boxes.
There are four very good reasons to push yourself to identify underperformance early. One, to be fair to the person who’s failing.
If you identify a problem early, you give the person time to address it. You also reduce the shock if they can’t or won’t address it and you wind up having to fire the person.
Two, to be fair to your company. If you identify and address problems early enough, you dramatically reduce the risk of getting sued or the chance that you’ll have to keep them on the payroll for months of painful legal documentation.
Three, to be fair to yourself. When you give somebody a good performance review rating one quarter and fire them the next, word gets around, and it undermines trust with everyone else. Not to mention that you risk being sued by the fired employee.
Although it is time-consuming and unpleasant to address performance problems, it takes a lot more time and is far more unpleasant to deal with a lawsuit.
Four, and most importantly, you want to address underperformance early to be fair to the people who are performing really well.
Tolerating bad work is unfair to the people who are doing excellent work.
Don’t make the decision unilaterally to fire someone
Once you’ve identified performance issues, take the time to get advice from your boss, to calibrate with your peers (if appropriate), and to get help from HR.
Don’t take the attitude that this is your decision alone. You don’t want to fire a person out of anger, and you don’t want to fail to fire a person out of denial.
Many people get lost in their own heads around this highly charged issue; your boss and your peers can help you think more clearly.
Good HR people can not only help you think more clearly but also make sure you do it in a way that won’t get you or the company sued.
In an ideal world, your company has somebody in HR whose job it is to help you document properly. (If you run a company, identify such a person!)
If that is not the case, find an employment lawyer or a seasoned HR person or an experienced manager and ask them for help.
Don’t just ask for advice; get them to edit what you write. Advice is far too abstract. I’ve seen dozens of cases where a manager has been advised how to write a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).
They are told to make it fair but not too easy, to make sure that it really addresses the performance issue. The managers hear the “fair” part but ignore the “not too easy” part.
The person passes the PIP without addressing the core issue, and the performance problem drags on for another three or six months.
As a boss, you need to write the emails and other documents like PIPs—but make sure that somebody who has done this before edits them carefully.
It’s going to take time—a lot more time than you want to spend on it. Again, it’s worth taking the time because being sued is far worse!
Give a damn about the person you’re firing
Don’t get too caught up in all the HR/ legal advice, though. Take a deep breath and a big step back. You have a relationship with the person you’re about to fire. You still give a damn about this person.
Think hard about how to do it in a way that will make it easiest on them—even if it makes it harder on you, or if you have to take some risks.
When I was at Juice, I had to fire somebody and was worried it would be contentious. I got a bunch of advice from our lawyer about how to do it (we had no HR department).
A lot of it was really helpful, but the lawyer kept advising me to hire a security guard to walk the person out. I knew the person I was firing would feel ashamed if I did it this way, and that it would make him more likely to go ballistic.
“What is the risk of not walking him out?” I asked the lawyer. “He might go ballistic,” she said.
I realized I was likely to cause the very thing I was trying to prevent by following legal advice, so I did the opposite. I let him go back in and say goodbye on his own terms.
He thanked me for that later, and I always had the feeling that following my gut instead of the legal advice spared everybody a lot of heartache—and probably avoided a lawsuit.
When you have to fire people, do it with humility. Remember, the reason you have to fire them is not that they suck.
It’s not even that they suck at this job. It’s that this job—the job you gave them—sucks for them.
Follow up with the person you’ve fired
I usually email people about a month after I’ve fired them to check in. I try to keep my ear to the ground about jobs they might be well-suited for.
But even if I don’t have anything to offer, I will reach out. Often, I’m the last person they want to hear from, and so if I don’t hear back I don’t push it, and I don’t blame them.
But sometimes the person is happy to take a walk, share a meal, or just have a quick exchange.
I’ll never forget one walk I took with a man who thanked me profusely for having fired him, and whose wife had asked him to pass along her thanks as well.
It turned out that leaving the job was not just good for his career; it was also good for his marriage and for his relationship with his children.
It’s hard to fire people, but it’s hard to quit, too. Sometimes it’s your job as the boss to be Radically Candid when something’s just not working.
*This post was adapted from Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
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