How do I fire someone?

Getting the boot

If you’ve been following along with me, you know that I’m a huge fan of clearing dead or diseased wood from your organization. Nothing rots an organization more effectively than people who don’t carry their share of the load, or who complain all the time, or are jerks. These people become a cancer to the team, and if you leave them around you send a very strong signal that this behavior is not only tolerated, but perhaps even preferred. Removing these people from your organization is often the fastest, best, and maybe even the only cure.

So, after much pain and deliberation, you’ve decided that the only really good solution to your problem with that person is to simply get them out of your organization. Good for you. Now the question is: how do I do it?

The short answer is: quickly, like removing a band-aid. Dragging it out is just like slow death, and it doesn’t make it any easier for either party. You just need to buck up, sit down with the victim, and fire away.

No, I don’t mean to let them have it with both barrels. If you’re firing someone, they don’t need to hear your long litany of reasons why this is the right thing to do. You may in fact be better off just keeping it simple, and not getting into specifics.

But you do need to be honest. You do have to tell them that there is a problem, you consider that problem insurmountable, and the time has come for them to leave.

You should do it quickly, frankly, and professionally.

You should do it quickly, frankly, and professionally. Don’t talk about the weather and “those darn Red Sox”. Don’t get wishy-washy and say “I think that maybe this is the right thing.” You have to be definitive and not make this seem like a time for negotiation.

And you absolutely have to be a professional and take responsibility. It’s not “the company is making me do this”, it is “I am doing this because…”. Just like every other aspect of being a leader, it’s not “them” that are doing this, it’s you. You have to be an adult and take ownership.

None of this is to suggest, however that you violate my number one rule for all employee job actions: no job action should ever be a surprise. Period. I don’t care if you are hiring or firing, promoting or demoting, giving a raise or laying them off. If you sit down with the person, and the action comes as a surprise, you, not they, have done something wrong.

No job action should ever be a surprise

If you are firing someone, this is especially true. They should have received steadily more dire performance appraisals. They should have had at least a couple of different private conversations warning that the behavior is not what’s expected. And they should never get mixed messages that makes them think that the behavior is sometimes OK. It needs to be clearly, and always wrong.

This progression of warnings is not only true because it’s just good management, but it’s also the law in many places. You can’t simply go merrily along telling someone they are doing fine, and then — BOOM — drop the hammer on them one day. It’s morally (maybe criminally) wrong, and it leads to the whole organization wondering if they are next.

So be sure you telegraph your intentions, in several different ways. Make that final conversation when you let them go be one they knew was coming, and is now finally here. It will make the conversation easier for both of you, and will also make it less likely to turn into a debate, a negotiation, or worse, a lawsuit.

Finally, you also really should check out your local (usually state) laws and/or union rules if they apply. As I say in my disclaimer, I am most definitely not a lawyer, nothing about this is to indicate you should violate any laws, regulations, or contracts. Your mileage may vary. Some conditions apply. Yadda, yadda.

But, you’ve made huge progress, you’ve decided they need to go. Good for you. Now get it done with and move on with your life, and make your organization into that great team you envisioned all along. Everyone, the team, you, and maybe someday even the victim, will be proud of you for it.