No one hires employees just to fire them. Many entrepreneurs do all they can to avoid firing someone. There’s a reason for that. Firing is the worst part of being a boss. It’s breaking off a relationship with someone you’ve worked alongside — sometimes for years. It sucks.

Sometimes tough decisions need to be made for the greater good.

The question is, are you sure it’s for the greater good?

As much as the act of firing sucks, it’s still easier for many leaders to do than putting in the hard work required each day to making your employees successful. That’s especially true when you can delegate the act of firing to someone else.

Firing people can break company cultures. It can turn employees against leaders. Will your employees grow closer as a team through the tough times in the wake of a firing? Or will they team up against you as a leader for how you handled letting someone go?

Surprised by being let go

Firing should never be a surprise

Most companies focus heavily on performance-related expectations while expectations around conduct are left in the employee handbook that nobody reads.

Set the expectations for what’s expected of your employees from day one.

When it comes time to make a tough decision, it should be clear to everyone around them why they’re being let go. Your job as a leader is to help your employees be successful. So, if you’re firing someone for performance-related reasons and you haven’t exhausted everything you can to help them succeed, firing them is a failure on you — their leader.

Letting them go for a breach of conduct should also not be a surprise when everyone at your company lives the core values each day. When someone breaks them, it’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

Throw away your annual performance reviews

Too many companies rely on reviews that force managers to try fitting someone’s conduct into a fill-in-the-blank sheet. Too many managers try a cookie-cutter approach to filling out yet another piece of paperwork.

One of my favorite stories comes from Darrin, who worked for a government entity prior to working for me. As a remote employee, Darrin received his annual reviews electronically. One year, his boss had remarked how, “…Gale does a great job…”

When Darrin asked his boss about it, he laughed it off by explaining he copy and pasted the reviews from one person to another. He simply must’ve forgotten to replace Gale’s name with Darrin’s on the review. How personal.

Instead of waiting for an annual review or faking performance reviews, you should constantly be coaching your employees. When you see something that’d fit in a review, don’t wait for the next formal review. Let your employees know right away. If it’s positive, give the immediate affirmation. If it’s a warning flag that could indicate a bigger issue, nudge them in the right direction.

Right Person Wrong Seat

Are they the right person in the wrong seat?

Christian was hired onto a team of artists at Digital-Tutors. He had a great work ethic, a great attitude, and wholeheartedly followed our core values. He was a great cultural fit.

Unfortunately, as Digital-Tutors grew, it became apparent his artistic skills weren’t up to our standards. I tried everything I could think of to help him grow. Nothing was working.

Finally, I sat down with my leadership team and decided to move him to technical support. The result was similar. Great work ethic and attitude but his performance was lacking.

Still, I wasn’t willing to give up an employee who was a perfect cultural fit for my company. I tried again, this time moving Christian to our production team.

He blossomed.

The knowledge he’d gained from his other roles coupled with his great work ethic and attitude helped him build a pipeline for teams that fixed their biggest pain points and bottlenecks. Before long, our teams were seeing new levels of productivity they’d never had previously thanks to Christian’s new role.

According to research by author Jim Collins, companies find more success by focusing on finding great people first and not necessarily what they’re doing. As he calls it, “Right Person Right Seat.” In other words, do you have the right people on the bus? It’s important to hire the right people first.

When you know you have the right people and they’re not performing well, like Christian, maybe you just need to find a new seat for them.

Image from The Fifth Element / © 2009 Columbia Pictures

Be open and honest

Of course, there will be times when there’s no way around it — you must fire someone. Any way you look at it, this means tough times ahead for your employees. Increased workload isn’t the only thing to keep in mind.

As I mentioned above, for those working alongside the person you let go, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a shock for those who didn’t work directly with them. Those team members are left trying to understand why they won’t see their coworker in the break room anymore.

Take the time to figure out what you legally can and cannot say in your area. Then, hold an all-staff meeting as soon as you can to let everyone hear about the decision you made from your mouth.

It’s human nature to discuss what’s happening around you, so don’t let this become an opportunity for office gossip to spread. If it’s performance-related, let everyone know the different seats you gave them, the training and other lengths you tried to keep them. It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to poor performance or a bad review from a manager.

If it’s conduct-related, you don’t have to get into the details to let everyone know you won’t stand for someone breaking the core values. When your tribe lives and breathes your company’s core values each day, no one wants to see a toxic culture slip in.

Building trust starts today

At the end of the day, you need to be at peace with your decision to let someone go. Your tribe needs to be at peace with your decision, too. For that to happen, they need to trust your ability to make decisions for the good of the company.

Do your people trust your decision to fire someone is the best option for your tribe?

When you’re firing someone, you’re making the decision for your entire tribe. You’re saying everyone is better off without their former coworker. Do they trust you’re making the right decision? Or do they think you have an ulterior motive for getting rid of someone?

Not all leaders have that level of trust from their employees.

Building Trust

Start small. Make it a point to build a little trust with your employees every day. Go out of your way to get to know them a little better — learn about their interests and get to know the names of their significant others. Say “thank you” in authentic ways, for example by offering affirmation for a specific win.

In other words, something I’ve mentioned time and time again — give your people BAM.

Too many leaders only try to build trust with their employees when they know they’ll need it back. You can’t expect your tribe to trust you have their best interests in mind if you try to start building trust the day of letting someone go. Everyone will call bullshit on that.

The best time to start building trust was a long time ago. The second-best time is today. Right now. Well, as soon as you’re done reading the next sentence. When you’re constantly working to grow your tribe’s trust, they’ll be more likely to put their trust in you when it comes time to let someone go for the greater good of the company.


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