Most of us are familiar with the collective sigh of relief that comes after a poor performing or toxic member of the team is fired or leaves. In these situations, remaining staff are usually more than happy to pick up the former employee’s tasks, and motivation and productivity often increase for the whole organization in spite of having one less person to do the work.
There is a lot of literature about the importance of hiring the right people for your organization, but I have noticed there is less conversation around letting people go. This is unfortunate because I believe the most important decision we make as leaders is not when to hire someone, but rather when to fire someone. One of my roles as a leader is to protect my organization’s viability and culture, and sometimes this means letting people go who don’t fit.
At ACHIEVE we have a very intentional hiring process. Our interview sessions are carefully designed to focus on making sure candidates fit our culture as it is defined by our core values, and that they fit the tasks of the position. However, after many years of using this intentional hiring approach, sometimes we still end up getting it wrong. While I’m sure it’s possible to perfect our hiring process even further, I’ve come to believe that there will inevitably be some hiring decisions we make that don’t end up working out.
When we realize someone is not a good fit for our organization’s culture or the tasks they were hired to do – and after attempts to coach, train, or discipline fail – it’s time to step up and make the all-important decision to let someone go.
Too often I see workplaces hold on to underperforming or disruptive employees for far too long. Intuition, performance markers, and occasionally even other employees can tell managers that this person is not working out, yet they can still be slow to take action.
Here are five reasons I’ve seen leaders give for being resistant to letting someone go:
1. They have a unique skill set that is not easily replaced.
Jim from accounting is just too valuable. He may be a jerk, but his expertise would really be missed if he was let go, so he is allowed to stay while others have to tiptoe around him. Despite Jim’s valuable skill set, his toxic behaviour negatively impacts other people’s engagement and performance. I view not letting someone go because their skill set would be missed as a poor excuse. No matter how skilled or experienced the person is, there is no place for mean-spirited and disrespectful people, and I refuse to tolerate them. As a leader, you need to remember that no one is irreplaceable – the short-term pain of firing someone who is not a good fit will be worth the long-term gain in organizational health.
The most important decision we make as leaders is not when to hire someone, but rather when to fire someone.
2. The employee is a nice person.
Underperforming employees aren’t always indifferent or mean. Firing someone who is nice is always difficult, yet keeping someone who underperforms and does their job poorly will eventually bring the rest of the team’s motivation and performance down. In my experience as both an employee and a leader, I have seen how important it is to be surrounded by other motivated, talented, and productive individuals. A saying I often use in my presentations is “Talent motivates talent.” In other words, talented people want to be surrounded by other talented individuals. As a leader, know that staff will feel the impact of a low-performing team member and that your role is to make sure teams perform at their peak – this means that everyone needs to be competent.
3. There is no time to find someone new.
Some managers delay firing because the hiring process can be time-consuming and take people away from their other work. What those who believe this may fail to recognize is that the underperforming or disruptive employee will take more of management’s time than necessary over the long term. Furthermore, by not doing anything you risk alienating those employees you want to be happy and productive. Although hiring and training do require a short-term investment of energy and time, it pales in comparison to the ongoing requirements of managing someone who is performing poorly.
4. You hope things will get better.
Many managers continue to believe that things will get better if the person is given yet another chance. As a leader, I do believe in second and even third chances – but not fourth, fifth, and so on. Before letting someone go, we should first give them a chance to improve by letting them know about the impact of their behaviour or performance on the team, highlighting the importance of living up to our core values. However, if their attitude and performance don’t improve quickly, we should let them go. If your initial efforts to coach and train aren’t paying off, they usually won’t pay off if you continue them either.
5. You worry about how it will affect morale.
Letting someone go is not only hard for the person being fired – it can be difficult for those they work with as well. However, those who have been working with the individual usually feel a sense of relief that the person has been let go. This is especially true when the termination is handled with respect and care. Remember that morale is also affected when you don’t let underperformers or toxic people go.
One person can have a destructive impact on your organization. If you have an employee who does not do their work at a high enough level, is indifferent about being there, whose behavior is disruptive, or who does not live by your core values, continuing their employment is an unhealthy choice.
Letting these types of people stay inevitably means leadership is not addressing performance issues or holding employees accountable to the core values of the organization. This sends the wrong message to other employees, essentially showing them it’s okay to underperform or behave in the way we say everyone at the organization should behave. Over time, this will negatively affect the attitudes, engagement, and performance of the whole organization.
On the other hand, when we do let people go, we show staff that we are willing to protect our culture and have high standards for our workplace. This is the type of organization people are proud to be a part of.
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