Firing an employee is one of the hardest tasks that a leader has to do. I was recently in a discussion with an executive faced with the decision of terminating an employee. They wanted to discuss their thinking with me and get my opinion. After a long discussion, they reached the conclusion that they had lost confidence and trust in the person so they would have to let the person go. They then sighed and said, "I guess this is the part that doesn't get advertised in the job description when you take the job".
Rarely do entrepreneurs think about employee termination when they start a company. These are times of enthusiasm, positivity and high expectations. We don't discuss handling failure, hoping maybe that we won't jinx ourselves, but the reality is that attracting, retaining and terminating people is the most important part of a leader's job.
For whatever reason, most, if not all, leaders struggle with the decision to fire an employee. Often, they believe they have failed as a leader to make the employee successful. They are caring human beings and worry about the impact that their actions will have on that employee and their family. They are worried that they are being unfair; that they have not given the employee a chance; and that they may be wrong with their decision. They often have an overriding feeling in their gut that the employee is the victim.
While they struggle with their decision, it impacts others in the organization. Peers of the employee see (often more clearly than anyone else) that the employee is failing. They resent the negative impact that the failing employee has on the organization, on their team's performance and even on themselves. To those other employees, often the decision is obvious and they wonder why their leader isn't acting. They begin to lose confidence in their leader.
Reality is that the failing employee is NOT the victim. They have failed to perform to the expectations of the job. Many times, the company is culpable in the failing because they did not clearly set expectations and quantifiable metric driven goals nor did they provide direct and candid feedback to the employee on their failure to consistently meet these goals. It is often this culpability that is the cause of all the angst outlined above.
Sometimes the employee has failed because they have failed to meet an expectation that is critical but not quantifiable. These are often binary measurements such as the Trust and Confidence. These are words with big and complex connotations. They involve the employee exhibiting behaviours consistent with the company's culture and the leader's values. They encompass reliability, judgement and integrity. They are binary; you have trust and confidence or you don't.
A leader either trusts an employee or they don't. They either have confidence in an employee or they don't. If you don't have trust and confidence, these are reasons for terminating employment that override all the analysis of employee's performance based on the quantifiable metrics. It doesn't mean you avoid paying severance but it does mean that you have to remove the employee from your team.
If you are a leader, especially a new entrepreneur in your first major leadership role, here are some steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls of being bad at firing.
- Start off with solid, bulletproof termination provisions in every employees 'employment agreement. Firing is an emotional time. Don't add to it by not having clear direction around the economic terms of letting someone go.
- Set clear expectations of what is success and what is failure in each employee's role. Where you can, ensure you have quantifiable metrics that allow you to have an unemotional discussion about failure to achieve a goal.
- Ensure these goals and metrics are aligned to the company goals. Don't let an employee claim success in their job if the job isn't contributing to the company's success.
- Talk about the big, qualitative, binary expectations that are demanded from every employee: Trust, Integrity, Values, Confidence, Ethics, and Judgement. Employees need to know these are more than just posters on the wall but are conditions of employment.
- Change your view on firing. Firing is not about failure; it is more often about lack of fit. A poor employee in your organization may be a great employee in another because of differences in expectation, culture, values and so on.
- Don't forget the old adage: Hire Slowly, Fire Fast