When Is It Correct to Terminate an Employee?

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About a decade ago, we hired someone (let’s call him “Jack”) after a long search for a tough-to-fill position. We quickly realized that Jack “wasn’t horrible,” but he wasn’t up to snuff either. Jack thought it was okay to answer emails within two days, we begged to differ. He was practiced at giving non-answers when he didn’t want to do the work necessary to find the accurate response. But Jack did some things well, too. And, he was a perfectly agreeable and nice guy.

So, let’s forget the easy situations like dishonesty or gross incompetence – you don’t need me to advise you about those.  When is it appropriate or wise to let someone like Jack go?  Following are some considerations.

  • What is the impact on other employees of not firing the employee in question? To me, this is one of the great overlooked issues in assessing how to handle an under-performing employee. Have you thought about how his presence affects those around him? In Jack’s case, his co-workers were constantly frustrated at the thought of having to do his work for him.  In deciding whether to fire someone, determine whether others are doing things beyond their job descriptions to make up for the questionable employee’s shortcomings.  If the issue has more to do with the employee’s personality, ask yourself whether he makes his co-workers miserable because he’s not a nice person. What would his co-workers say if they learned he was fired? Would they be sad, or would they say, “it’s about time!”?
  • Can you honestly say that the firing was fair? There is a pretty straightforward way to measure this. Did the company invest in the employee? Did you offer training and oversight, and was he given the tools he needed to succeed? Assuming yes, the next question to ask is whether he was adequately warned about his shortcomings and specifically told what was required to fix the problem.  We told Jack many times that he needed to be more responsive. He said he understood and then proceeded to act the exact same way!  If an employee was provided an appropriate level of training, warned that he wasn’t doing an adequate job and failed to respond to the warning, termination is completely warranted.  In fact, I’d argue that you are derelict if you don’t fire him.
  • Will (or should) the employee be surprised by the termination?  There are a few deluded individuals who believe they are doing a great job, when, in fact, they are not. But this tends to be the exception.  A client recently told me that she had had multiple meetings with an employee, each of which ended with him saying something to the effect of, “Phew, I thought you called me in to fire me.” If an employee thinks that, there is probably a decent chance he should be fired.  Jack wasn’t even slightly surprised when we terminated him. He quickly jumped into action negotiating the terms of the termination.  So, ask yourself if a reasonably objective third party would say, “No, he should not be surprised.” If so, then you’re on safe footing. The best way to make that determination is laid out in bullet point two above.

If you are a good manager, you’ve likely had to fire someone. Or, you eventually will. But it doesn’t ever really get easier, so, if the thought concerns you, give us a call (301-520-9511) or email us at bob@epi.coach and we’ll play it out ahead of time.

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