I had a client say something to me last week that stopped me in my tracks. She said:
“The best time to fire someone is the first time you think of it. Once you’ve said to yourself, ‘I’m going to have to fire that person,’ it’s time to do it. That day!”
When I heard her say that, I recalled all the times in my life when I thought: “I’m going to have to fire that person,”; and then I reviewed what happened next.
The dread of doing their work
After thinking, “I’m going to have to fire that person,” my very next thought is “but if I do that, I will have to do all their work.”
I hired someone because I have work that needs to be done. Even if this employee isn’t doing a great job, they are getting some things done. How am I going to get all their work done and get all my work done? If I fire them, my life will (at least for some time) get a lot worse.
So I avoid the firing. Instead of writing up a termination letter, I look for ways to accommodate them. I look for ways to minimize the impact of their poor performance on my business. Maybe I start by double-checking their work or asking them to run their client communication by me before it goes out. I stay on top of them so they can’t screw up anything big.
But what have I done there? I’ve added significant work to my plate, double-checking (and likely fixing) their poor work.
Rats that doesn’t work. I’ve still got a poor performer, and my workload still goes up!
Avoid conducting a job search.
The problem now is that I know I have to let them go. But if I DO let them go, I have to conduct a JOB search. So on top of doing all their work, now I have the work of a job search. I have to write a posting, sort through resumes, conduct interviews… Truthfully, nothing in business is so much of a crap shoot as hiring. Even if I do ALL these steps well, there’s still a tremendous risk of making a bad hire. (And when I’m overworked and in a rush to hire someone, let’s be honest, I might not do all these steps as well as I COULD.)
So I procrastinate. I know, maybe they’ll “get better!” Maybe I just need to train them! Maybe if I work with them more… So. Now I’m doing my work, I’m double-checking their work, AND I’m training and coaching them too! This still isn’t working…
The passive-aggressive approach
At this point, some business owners turn to what I call the passive-aggressive approach.
With this approach, you point out everything the employee does wrong—loudly and often abrasively. Sometimes the boss will change their duties or assign them scut work intended to humiliate the underperforming employee. It appears to me that this is designed to make the underperformer so miserable that they would rather quit than continue in this role.
As I said, I’ve seen many owners do this; but it’s not a behavior I really understand. Yes; if they quit, you save on unemployment and maybe some severance, but it still costs you: you have a miserable employee working with your customers, and your whole team watches you abuse this person. Generally, they think YOU are the one being a jerk.
OK, you might be mad at them for underperforming and “making” you fire them; and it might feel good to take some resentment out on them. But really, this is not you at your best. Right?
What should we do?
So now I’ve come full circle. I don’t really have many good options here. Assuming that you have been around the block of coaching, training, and maybe even some discipline—when you come to the point when you say, “I’ve got to fire this person,” then I think my client is right. We have to fire them; the sooner we do it, the better.
When we take action quickly, what happens?
First, you eliminate an underperformer before they can damage your business or office morale. This is significant; letting poor performers hang around your team can cause that behavior to spread. If, instead, you act quickly, you reinforce the idea that poor performance will not be tolerated. That’s what we want, right?
Second, your team sees you doing the hard thing, making the hard choice, and being a leader. Yes, it means YOUR life worsens for some time; but you are putting the team’s performance first, reinforcing your team’s performance culture. In most cases, your team has seen poor performance before you have, and they appreciate that you are acting to keep the business safe and strong.
AND, if we think creatively, we might come up with some options for how to get our recently departed co-workers’ tasks done too. Can we spread these tasks across the team? Can we outsource to a VA or bring in a freelancer? Maybe you sucking it up is the only choice, but maybe not?
Finally, there are some very fine folks who can help you with recruiting. Getting some outside help with this will not only improve your odds of making a good hire, but you should also get a replacement in more quickly than you can on your own.
So after thinking it through, my client might be right: the best time to fire someone might indeed be the first time you think it needs to be done.
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