Terminating an employee
I appreciate all the positive feedback that I received on my post Seven Lessons for New Leaders, so I thought I would stick with the theme for a new article.
One of the most daunting tasks for a new manager is the decision to terminate an employee. Not only is it filled with emotion, this decision affects the livelihood of the terminated employee and their family, the performance and culture of your company, the morale of other employees and can be fraught with legal and financial landmines.
As a new manager, the complexity of this decision is further complicated by your inexperience in:
- setting performance goals,
- enforcing accountability across your team,
- having benchmarks for what is and what is not acceptable performance and behaviour
- and knowing which deficiencies can be coached to success and which are core to employee and not changeable.
To help you through, here are three tips:
1) Performance is not an annual event.
Performance review may be annual events but performance management is on-going. Many managers suffer from self-doubt when considering whether an employee should be terminated. They question whether the employee has been unsuccessful in meeting their goals or whether they, as the manager, have set the employee up for failure. This self-doubt takes for form of questions like:
- Were the employee’s goals obtainable or too aggressive?
- Was the failure to perform for reasons outside of their control and they deserve a second chance?
- Did I mentor them enough?
- Did I provide adequate training?
- Did I properly communicate their goals and provide feedback and coaching?
- And the list goes on…
At the root of these questions is the manager feeling guilty that the employee’s lack of performance is the manager’s fault.
Get over this. At the root of every employment relationship is an implicit agreement or “contract”. The implicit contract says that I, as the employer, will pay you, the employee, a salary every week and you, as the employee, will deliver value to the employer. When the value (or performance objective) is not delivered by the employee, they have not held up their end of the bargain, so don’t feel it is all the manager’s fault. Employees are adults and as part of this implicit bargain, they have a responsibility to seek out help to be successful as much as the manager must provide this help. For an employee to say that they didn’t meet their manager’s performance expectations because the manager never told them is a bit of cop-out. Applying this philosophy is never a “One size fits all”. For example, a new, more junior employee should get more slack than a more mature, veteran employee.
But as a new manager, there are things you can do to completely avoid this uncomfortable situation. Budget time at the beginning of the year to clearly discuss and communicate performance objectives with every team member. Also, budget time weekly, monthly and quarterly to provide performance feedback. Weekly and monthly can be informal but at least quarterly, make sure it is formally delivered. Learn to be direct with your feedback. Direct does not have to be mean. Hard news can be delivered in a helpful way, using examples to be constructive, but where an employee is failing your expectation, make sure the employee knows.
One of the first questions you will be asked by your HR leader when discussing a possible employee termination is: “Will the employee be surprised to learn they are being terminated?”. You need to have had candid dialogue and feedback with your employee that allows you to answer, “no it shouldn’t be a surprise.”
2) Involve your boss and your HR team as early as possible.
Both will have experience that you are still developing and can guide you. A company’s goal should never be to terminate an employee but rather to make them successful. Unfortunately, this is a goal that is not always achievable, and their early involvement will help you differentiate the employee that you can focus on and make successful, from the one where a positive outcome is unlikely.
If you have set clear objectives, coached and provided feedback, maybe modified their objectives to correct for any overly aggressive targets, and are still not seeing the progress you expect, involving your boss and/or HR early can give you the feedback that further investment is unwarranted and it is time to move them out.
3) Use “Performance Improvement Plans (PIP)” with caution.
I hate PIP’s. Instead of performing their objective of improving an employee’s performance, they are often used as a step in the HR process to document the fact that an employee will not be surprised when they are terminated. There is also a negative stigma attached to a PIP that causes employee termination or resignation to become a foregone conclusion. If you are doing your managerial job correctly, setting performance expectations and providing clear and candid feedback, a PIP should not be required.
It is rare to meet a manager who sleeps well the night before they terminate someone. I am glad we all have the humanity to be like this, but it is an important part of our job as a manager to take poor performance seriously and act as required, up to and including termination. We owe it to the others on our team.