There is no question that firing or laying someone off is an onerous leadership task. Still, there are going to be times when it is absolutely necessary to terminate employment. The question is not if, but how and when, employers will bring that relationship to a close. When you’re a leader, firing right is just as important a job as hiring right. And, yes, it’s emotionally loaded, complicated and just plain uncomfortable to fire anyone, no matter the circumstances. If firing were easy for leaders, it would happen quicker and more often. There will always be a few consistent underperformers and bad behaviors that arise in every organization, no matter if you are a leader in a tire factory or a place of worship. Since it isn’t easy, there are a host of reasons that can cause a leader to hesitate at best and, at worst, fail to fire the person who needs to be let go. Here are six common blocks to firing.
1. Arrogance. “I hired you, so I couldn’t be or don’t want to be wrong.” Another word for this is ego. No one is perfect and the hiring process is always going to be a measured risk. You have no control over the choices that lead to the behaviors and actions of another person. You can only do your best to set them up to succeed; you cannot make them succeed. If you’ve hired, onboarded and developed the right way, you’ve given it your best shot. The antidote to arrogance and ego is stepping back, applying objectivity, having the ability to admit mistakes, being open minded and paying close attention to both the data and your instincts instead of your ego.
2. Conflict or pain avoidance. This is about your pain, the employee’s pain or both. It could be a reluctance to, or even fear of, engaging in a potentially tough conversation or conflict. Or, you might be feeling guilty that you hired someone into a job where they are unable to succeed, forgetting for a moment that they applied for and accepted that job. There may be an organizational culture, based entirely in myth, that by dealing directly and appropriately with bad behavior and/or poor performance you’re not being inclusive of diverse people or ideas. You might think you didn’t do enough to support this employee, or you could be worried about doing damage to that person’s future career or emotional state. Feeling guilty or letting conflicts escalate helps no one, including the employee. The antidote (situation dependent) is to summon the courage to have a very candid conversation about the situation. This will transform the conflict into positive action by the employee, or it will move your closer to an exit process.
3. Fix-it syndrome. Most leaders know that providing appreciation, constructive feedback and development opportunities are all parts of the leader’s job. However, when all the evidence tells us that an employee’s ability to thrive in the job is just not there, prolonging the agony amplifies that employee’s failure. No one can turn a pine tree into an oak and taking too long to recognize and address a mismatch is unfair to both the employee and the organization. Employee development does not replace employee responsibility, fitness or performance. It’s good to offer development, but don’t keep trying when it’s getting you and the employee nowhere fast. There can be a misconception that more and more development is the answer to everything. It is not. No business can afford or should “carry” marginal or underperforming staff. Trying to “save” an employee for too long, when it’s clear this person is a mismatch for the job, is a mistake that can carry far-reaching consequences. The antidote to the fix-it syndrome is to perform due diligence, have direct and candid conversations, and if possible, support the employee in finding other employment options.
4. Image and perception. There may be a fear of having your organization, team or even you as the leader perceived as being out of control or as bad decision makers; or that rumors will fly if you fire someone, particularly a highly visible, well-known employee. If you are concerned, keep in mind that it’s far worse to ignore poor performance than it is to deal with it. You can’t control rumors and gossip, but you can control communications and your own behavior and actions. The antidote to image and perception concerns is to be as transparent as possible in your communications without violating an employee’s privacy.
5. Fear of loss. Leaders can get stuck or frozen with the fear of imagined or even real disruptions to operations if an employee who has a key role or is deeply embedded in positive relationships with external stakeholders (clients, customers, alumni, vendors, etc.), is fired. Other losses can drive a failure to act—loss of time, resources and the support of one or more of your stakeholders. There is a lingering myth about thinking some employees are indispensable. No one is, no matter how hard he or she may try to convince you they are. If they left on their own accord, you’d have to figure out how to replace them. While some of what that employee is doing could be mission critical, if they are doing real damage at the same time, you have a big problem. Justifying keeping someone because they are “so smart” or “know more than anyone about ABC” or are “loved by everyone” is not going to serve you or the organization in the long run. Customers, employees and other stakeholders care more about getting the support or results they need than who, specifically, is providing for their needs. Stakeholders tend to have fairly short memories when they are satisfied. The antidote to fear of loss is having well-considered transition and communication plans that you can snap into place immediately without leaving gaping holes in your operations.
6. Fear of litigation. Leaders, HR professionals and even legal counsel may avoid a firing, no matter how egregious the employee’s behavior or actions have been for fear of being sued, or in the case of a union, going to arbitration. This is particularly true when an employee is in a protected class (e.g: gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability). Tiptoeing around someone whose performance is problematic sends a message of weakness and uncertainty both to the employee and everyone else involved. While a full review of the facts and thoughtful consideration must be given, while ensuring bias isn’t operating in your decision, fear of litigation must not stop a firing that needs to happen.
When you are confident that due diligence fairness and objectivity (including documentation and discipline) have been addressed well and are certain that a firing is justified, the fact that someone can sue you or grieve a firing need not scare you. You don’t know whether they will or not. Even if they do, they will rarely, if ever, win when you’ve executed your due diligence properly. There are two options frequently used by organizations when threatened by litigation or arbitration—pay the employee enough to entice them to go away, or let the suit or arbitration proceed. You’d be surprised how many people back down when the employer lets the litigation or arbitration threat stand. Employees who sue generally have to pay an attorney and unions who expect they are going to lose will often try to negotiate a settlement rather than spend resources on arbitration. The antidote to fear of litigation is firing right in the first place, including completing due diligence and being 100% aligned with values.
If you employ anyone, besides yourself, at some point you will have to let someone go for some reason. Don’t let these six blocks prevent you from doing what you need to do, when you need to do it. And, conversely, don’t get trigger happy either and just fire away because you can. Take the time to fire at the right time and in the right ways, so it’s as clean as possible while honoring the employee’s dignity.