Q – There is someone on my team who hasn’t been performing well for a while now. I’m almost embarrassed to say he’s been on my radar for more than a year. I keep finding reasons not to make the hard decision and let him go, only to have it come back and bite me each time. I’m starting to worry about how this is impacting my team and what it says about my strength as a manager. How do you know when it’s finally time to fire someone?
A – I can’t think of a worse part about being a manager than having to let people go. Anyone who tells you they don’t mind firing people is either lying or sadistic. It’s awful. Even after all these years, I still lose sleep over each person I have to let go. Whether a person is incompetent or not, a bad cultural fit, mean spirited, redundant … whatever … when you fire someone you’re causing them a great deal of pain and directly impacting their lives and the lives of their families. I take this extremely seriously and so should you.
The scenario you’re describing rings true to me. The fact that you’re struggling with it only means you’re human. I’ve done the same thing many times. I’m always searching for reasons not to let someone go. I find myself looking for any hint or sign of hope I can use to justify hanging on a little longer. I find myself spending weeks pondering the decision, weighing the pros and cons, trying to justify not doing it.
- Maybe I haven’t given her enough coaching.
- Maybe I haven’t provided him clarity of his role and objectives.
- Maybe with some extra help she can get better?
- How people look at me for hiring the person only to now be letting them go?
- What impact will this have on the morale of the team?
These are all legitimate questions, and they take over my mind for the days and weeks leading up to the decision point. And then, when I’ve finally made the hard choice, I worry about it … a lot. I always have trouble sleeping the night before and I’m distracted all day before it finally happens. But the sad truth is, when I look back on most of these situations, I can say with confidence I waited too long to act. I suspect you know in your heart that the same is true for you. But the real question is, “how do you know for sure when it’s finally time to fire someone?”
Here are 3 signs that ultimately tell me when it’s time to stop trying to fix things and finally make the decision to let someone go.
Team morale is hurt more by them staying than going. This is a line of thinking I don’t think enough managers consider. We talk a lot about the negative impact firing someone can have on a team but we rarely discuss the negative impact of indefinitely carrying incompetent or disruptive employees. There comes a point when letting a person go can actually have a net positive impact on team morale.
There is very little more frustrating than having your own success consistently hampered by another person’s incompetence. If 90 percent of your team are working hard, producing great work and collaborating effectively, what message are you sending by supporting the 10 percent who are doing the opposite? If you’re not careful, you can create a situation where the culture you’re building actually drives good people away while building a safe haven for negative contributors. I talk in my book about a period where I worked for a company where this happened – the incompetents actually started to outnumber the competents - the inmates took over the asylum.
My advice to managers is to ask yourself this question whenever you’re thinking about whether or not it’s time to let someone go: “If I’m honest with myself, is it possible team morale would actually go up if I let this person go?” If the answer is “yes”, it’s time to make the hard decision.
I can’t honestly imagine them being great one day. As a manager your job is to create an environment and put people on a path to being great at what they do. That’s what building a great team is – each member getting better every day until they’re masters at their craft. When you have a team full of masters, you’ll be great. With that perspective in mind, one of the key signs it’s time to let someone go is when you can’t honestly envision a person being great at their role or any other available role on the team. If there is no realistic path to greatness – no matter how long or challenging it may have to be – then its time. I find myself spending a lot of time on this train of thought lately. I structure all my team 1 on 1s to focus on the path to greatness. And when I start feeling cynical about it or I stop believing what I’m discussing with the person, an alarm goes off in my head and I know I need to make a change.
My advice to managers is to get more active in building and measuring each employee’s path to greatness at whatever function they perform for the company. When you create this mindset for you and your team, it will help you know when it’s time to let someone go. Keep asking yourself, “Can I honestly imagine a scenario where this person can be truly great in their role or any role on my team?” If the answer is “no” it’s time to move on.
They’ve shown a pattern of bad judgement or questionable morals. This is a pretty easy one for me. If I can’t trust a person, I can’t have them on my team. You’d be surprised how many managers actually don’t feel this way or at least seem willing to carry people who show bad judgment or dicey ethics just because they are smart or high performers. The fastest path to a toxic team is to support people you can’t trust. When I say “trust” in this context I’m referring both to a person’s morale decision making and logical decision making. If you’ve got someone on your team who is demonstrating dicey moral judgement – that’s a no brainer. But it’s also pretty clear cut when you’ve got a well-intentioned person who consistently makes business decisions that seem unjustifiable by logic or common sense. If I can’t trust a person to make basic, sound decisions, there is just no starting point to build from.
My advice to managers is to analyze decision making as critically as you analyze outcomes. Sometimes we use positive outcomes as a justification for questionable logic or morals. Ask yourself, “Does this person follow a consistent, logical and ethical path for making decisions?” If the answer is no, it’s time to let them go. In my experience this is no recovery from this.
Letting people go is terrible. It’s probably the worst thing we have to do as managers. It can have devastating impact on people’s lives so you need to take it extremely seriously. But in my experience, more often than not, we allow our emotional revulsion to the idea prolong what needs to be done. I use these three signs to keep me thinking about it this difficult decision the right way. I hope they will help you to.