Three Guides to Help You Determine When to Fire Someone What to Know Before You Let Them Go

Happy New Year! In 2019, I am launching a leadership YouTube Channel. I will post my leadership thoughts based on the blogs I write and other content. If you prefer to hear and see me talk about the leadership topics I write about, check out the first video and subscribe to the channel. 

In today’s blog, I am addressing the unpopular topic of deciding when to fire someone. Letting people go is not a pleasant process for most leaders. Mature leaders must be guided by clear principles in this area. I use the following three guides.

who should you fire

As a leader, if you ignore bad behavior, it affects the whole culture. If you are too quick to let people go, you have to deal with a high turnover rate, low morale, and a general bad feeling that maybe you’re shooting from the hip.

As I reflect on my tenure in leadership, I find that sometimes I tend to be too permissive. I say, “Let’s give this person another chance. Let’s work with him.” Other times, I am more callous and concede, “Just let this person go. I am tired of this behavior.” But when I am at my best, I am aware of these two extremes, and I strive to operate somewhere in between.

Let me describe these two ends of the spectrum to you that some noted leaders swear by. As you read them, you may recognize that you operate at one end or the other and may want to consider making some adjustments. Or you may be affirmed that you are right where you need to be.

Aggressive Approach: Yearly, let go of the lowest performing 10%.

Jack Welch is known to have fired the lowest performing 10% of his staff every year. Two years ago, one of our leaders developed a tool to rate people based on our written values. It was a matrix where we listed our twelve core values and the twelve leadership values we aim to practice and gave each staff member a score. It was incredibly revealing and eye opening!

The bottom 10% of our values evaluation matrix were the exact people we were having trouble with from a culture and performance standpoint. That year, we determined that if those individuals did not improve, we would transition them out of our organization—and we committed that we would not feel bad about it.

This approach is one end of the spectrum when it comes to letting people go. Here are the pros and cons to The Aggressive Approach.

Pros: When you actively evaluate people, looking at the bottom 10% gives you a unique perspective about who is positively and negatively contributing to your overall culture. It also gives you a formula to follow each and every time to see who may be eligible to be placed on probation or termination. When you let go of the bottom 10%, everyone else feels better. This small group of people are usually the ones causing problems. Many times these are the people who do not want to be with you anyway, but have not had the courage to quit, so in many ways you are helping everyone by letting them go.

Cons: When you automatically let go of a certain group of people based on scores, it can make your leadership staff seem calloused and lacking in grace. It can also become an excuse not work on your leadership skills to confront people and help them grow. Rather, you take the seemingly easy route and just dismiss them. If the bottom 10% are really not that bad, you would be getting rid of talent.

When faced with a question of whether or not to let someone go, I like to engage this way of thinking: Sometimes I work with a leader who is too timid to push people to grow, so I say to them, “Okay, put this person and your entire team on a matrix. If this person is in the bottom 10%, there is support to the argument that we ought to let them go. If you don’t want to let them go yet, then start having frank conversations with them.”

Many leaders feel guilty any time they think of firing someone. We must not feel guilty. We are responsible for the entire team and the developing culture. We are the guardians of the dream. Don’t be harsh. Give people a chance; help them grow. But if there is no change or meeting of expectations, holding on to them is detrimental.

Permissive Approach: Never fire anyone.

Some leaders never fire anyone. Here is an article about Spire Global’s CEO Peter Platzer. With this kind of thinking, the leadership commits, “If we hire you, we are going to work with you, and keep you.” This is the opposite end of the spectrum.

What are the pros and cons to this approach?

Pros: One advantage to this approach is that it forces you, as the leader, to practice good leadership: build strong relationships with effective communication, have clear accountability, and create ways to push yourself as a leader to reach those you lead. This is also where you up your game when it comes to practicing grace with others while still holding them to high standards. This approach can create a culture of no fear, which in turn can foster creativity and strong output.

Cons: People know that if they slack, the leadership will not let them go. This may result in some team members taking advantage of this principle and abusing the system. Another disadvantage is that your team will have to tolerate weak performers at times. You may have to endure more and watch quality and culture take hits until the person who is performing poorly corrects their behavior.

I endeavor to remember this. When I am talking to a leader who reports to me, if they are quick to say, “Let’s just fire them,” I challenge them. I pose, “You know some leaders don’t fire anyone. Are you taking the easy way out? Have you worked with this person? Were you clear with expectations?”

When someone is fired, it must not be a surprise to them.

One of the questions to ask before you let someone go is, “Have I been clear that their infractions are serious? You may wonder if you let them go…am I being unfair to them? Maybe they did not realize that what they were doing was really a problem. That’s a legitimate concern.

As a matter of fact, I believe in the principle that if someone is surprised when they are fired, then we did not do a good job prior to their dismissal. We were not fair with them, and therefore not practicing good leadership. If the answer to this question is, “Yes, they will be surprised,” then I recommend you give them another chance, but this time be very clear about expectations and boundaries. Maybe it is a person you simply don’t like to deal with and you just want to get rid of “the problem.” While you may have the authority to do so, this is not good leadership.

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

For Further Reading:

How to Create a Culture of Accountability
Bad Attitude, You’re Fired! (Part 1)
Bad Attitude, You’re Fired! (Part 2)

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