What to do when an employee no longer cuts it.

Before terminating an employee for poor performance, first double and triple check that the real problem is not that  expectations are undeveloped, unclear, or not understood and aligned with abilities and interest.

Resist the temptation to reassign the person to another part of the organization in order to not have to deal with the matter. Instead collect, consolidate and review input from the team with respect to what they are good at doing, what they have recently contributed, how they have grown, and what they should focus on doing and accomplishing next.

Validate that the assignment is a good match with employee skills, interests, and experience. If it is, but performance lags, it may be due to distractions or lack of drive. Talk through with the person, tweak incentives if needed, and, if lack of attention and effort is the problem, insist they focus on what has been asked.

If lack of performance is due to shortcoming of ability, consider taking one of the following courses of action:

  • Develop in the person skills that are needed but that are lacking. Be careful, though, to stop short of trying to teach a fish to fly. It is usually better to further develop and capitalize on existing strengths than to overcome weaknesses that essentially define who a person really is. Note: see Gallup’s Strength Finder and Max De Pree’s Management is an Art for further reference along these lines.
  • Complement with strengths of others. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and no one can be good at everything. Getting the full breadth of skills required covered through the mutual contributions of a team of strong performers is often the best way to get the best results.
  • Reassign to a job that is better matched to their strengths and interests as long as the value of doing it is enough to warrant the associated costs.
  • Help them find opportunities to apply their strengths in an organization more likely to have need for what they offer. It may initially seem cruel to let someone go, but it is often a blessing as they know the fit is not right, feel they are living an inauthentic life, and will be relieved to get on track to success in a job for which they are better suited.

If the odds of a person’s success approach zero and there is no longer time or money to invest in trying to make things work, then termination is required. While every situation is different, the following tips are likely to help things go more smoothly:

  • Script the words you will use to communicate the message. Practice a day or two ahead to hear yourself say them out loud in order to get the emotion out. Review with a close advisor, family member, or friend to get their best advice to be sure what you are saying is clear and unambiguous.

Here is an example of an opening script from a recent executive termination:

I am here to discuss with you our path forward.
While I appreciate your efforts and support over the past several months, we have been through a lot and it is time to take stock. I have forced myself to get clear about my team, roles, and how we are going forward. In parallel I have listened to you, gotten to know and understand you and what’s important to you, where you get energy, and your goals, to determine whether and how you fit on my team.

My conclusion is that there is not a good fit for you with the roles available on my team.

Consequently, it is my decision that we need to start now to effect a smooth and deliberate transition for you to move out of the organization. It is important to both of us, and to those we care about, for the transition to be smooth, effective, and not the least bit disruptive.

  • Review recent formal and informal performance assessments to be sure a decision to terminate is not out of sync with prior messages. Frame what is communicated accordingly.
  • Consult with your Human Resources department to:
    •  Get coaching on local laws (e.g., to comply with cases that might evoke actions due to discrimination) and company customs and precedents.
    • Line up mechanics for out-processing; e.g., to pay accrued but unused PTO, arranging COBRA insurance coverage, 401k processing, collect key cards, etc.
  •  Have someone from HR present when you communicate the termination. Get right to the point with as few words as possible. The longer you delay and beat around the bush the harder and more awkward it will be. Follow your script to get the message out.
  • The first reaction is likely to be: “You’re firing me?” Patiently, calmly help them work through these five inevitable stages of emotion:

o Denial (this can’t be happening)
o Anger (you can’t do this)
o Bargaining (what if I …)
o Grief (woe is me)
o Acceptance (I get it).

It helps for you to frame the separation as giving the person an opportunity to get on track to success elsewhere. More often than not they experience relief because thet have quite likely has known for some time that things are not going well.

  • The session in which you communicate the termination should be in a private work space where you can get up and leave when done. Never do it in your office where you would have to end by asking the terminated employee to leave or leave them alone in your office. It is far better for you to be the one to leave and for the HR representative to stay and help with mechanics.
  •  Schedule the meeting for first thing in the morning or last thing of the day to minimize disruption to other office activity. Never terminate on a Friday; far better is to do it on a Monday or a Tuesday to give the luxury of time during the active work week to reach out to others for help and support.
  •  If personal, physical, or information security are at risk it is even more important for someone from HR and/or security to remain present as they collect their things and are escorted out.
  •  Decide what you need from the person beyond the point of termination. Ideally you will need nothing because once you have communicated it is over, their allegiance is to themselves and they need to get on with their lives. The best strategy is to get them all the way out ASAP. No transition. No phase out. Just out.
  • Decide on and document separation terms:
    • What they can take (e.g., computer, documents, data, etc.).
    • Non-disparagement, non-compete, non-solicitation in exchange for severance.
    • Allowance to cover, and/or a referral to, third-party help with resume preparation and job search, a reference, counseling, and extended company-financed insurance benefits.
    • Access to infrastructure such as office facilities, administrative support, email access and forwarding; etc.

Prepare, lean-in to the discomfort, and be thoughtful and compassionate. Letting someone go is hard but when it is the right thing to do it is far easier than the drag on performance and growth from continuing to employ a sub-par performer. Having let go an employee is a badge of honor and a credential for life. In the end it also helps the person, those s/he cares about, the organization, and yourself.

For more on how to terminate an employee:

References that may be helpful to terminated employee:

One thought on “What to do when an employee no longer cuts it.”

  1. Peter, I found this post while researching types of training methods and, even though it’s from 2015, it’s got some great content! Nice work making your post evergreen, I really liked the read. And you started the article with such a powerful note. You said: “Before terminating an employee for poor performance, first double and triple-check that the real problem is not that your expectations are undeveloped, unclear, or not understood and aligned with abilities and interest.” You really laid out how to be thorough and fair before termination, and I think that’s something every employee appreciates. So many companies throw away talent because of “poor performance” when the issue really lies in training or teamwork. Things that should be fixed on the company’s end. Letting someone go without going through due diligence like this is time-consuming and COSTLY. Fixing an issue with an existing employee is so much more efficient than hiring and training someone new. Now, that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes necessary. You’re totally right in saying that “If the odds of a person’s success approach zero and there is no longer time or money to invest in trying to make things work, then termination is required.” And I loved your example opening script. Thanks again for the post!

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