Terminating an Employee; Determining When to Let Them Go

Terminating an Employee

You hire someone you believe will be an A-player. Someone who has the potential to make a significant contribution to your workplace and yet the potential you anticipate for this employee is never realized. Instead, you find yourself with a substandard performer that no matter how much you try, doesn’t seem to “get it.”

Sound familiar? There is certainly nothing wrong with being optimistic or wanting to help someone succeed but when that potential is something that you have not yet seen after far too long, it may be time to say goodbye. We often believe that if we are patient, invest more time, attention and perhaps resources that things will improve. Or, better yet, the employee acknowledges there is a problem but assures us things will improve in a few weeks. As a strategic HR firm, we recommend to our clients that the employee be given a chance to succeed and to try and turn their poor performance around within a reasonable timeframe. But when the employee’s performance or behavior does not improve after repeated efforts on your part, then its likely time to cut your losses.

I realize that many of us hesitate to terminate an employee because it’s hard. We don’t want to be the bad guy. Not to mention the time and energy it takes to find a replacement is sometimes more daunting than limping along with an underperformer. There are however several reasons the decision to hang on to an employee just a bit longer can be more detrimental to your workplace than terminating the employee.

Questions to help decide on Terminating an Employee.

When faced with the decision of should they stay, or should they go, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is retaining this employee best for the company? Am I investing so much time and energy on this underperformer that higher priority work, such as growing my business, is suffering?
  • Is retaining this employee best for the employee? You may be trying to fit a round peg into a square hole rather than letting the employee go and allowing them to find a round hole that will be a much better fit for them elsewhere.
  • Is this employee adding to our workplace culture or detracting from it? You’ve worked hard to create a workplace in which employees like to work. If you have one “bad apple” eroding your culture, its time to make a change.
  • Is retaining this employee best for other employees?
    • The underperforming employee’s coworkers are likely picking up the slack and aren’t too happy about it. They may be willing to do this for a while without complaint but as the days wear on, they become less and less excited about coming to work.
    • The nonverbal message you are sending to other employees by keeping a poor performer around too long can demotivate his/her peers. It can send the message that this behavior is permitted. Often, I find once the decision is finally made to terminate an underperformer, most of his/her peers will say, “what took you so long?”

The Time has Come to Say Goodbye

As long as you are confident that you provided the employee with all the tools, resources, support and training necessary to succeed, yet they did not fulfill the needs of the position, then it is time to part ways. You will likely know whether you have the right person for the job within 60 – 90 days. So, what should you do? The best way to prevent the interminable hope for greatness is to create tools that will allow you to assess the employee’s performance at 30, 60 and 90 days. Set goals and productivity milestones from the start that will not only aid you in your assessment but if the employee is really a go-getter they will appreciate this structure and direction. At 30-days check in with the employee by asking them some of the following questions:

  • How could we have improved upon your training to date?
  • Is there anything that surprised you about your position or the workplace?
  • What is keeping you motivated and engaged?
  • Has anything drained your motivation?
  • Is there anything we should stop doing? Do differently?

In addition to the above questions, if you have concerns about the employee’s performance or behavior bring it up now, if you haven’t previously. Then meet again at 60-days and ask additional “check-in” questions. Call out performance or behavioral concerns. Note: Steer clear of the word “attitude.” Oftentimes I hear leaders express what a “bad attitude” an employee has. Attitude is intangible. You want to cite visible behaviors that have led you to the conclusion the employee has a “bad attitude.” These conversations should not be a personal attack on the employee’s character but instead include objective, observable performance and behaviors that are of concern.

Remember in these initial meetings you want the employee to improve their behavior so be certain to talk about the performance and behaviors that are positives. Things that are going well and you want the employee to continue.

Documentation is Key When Terminating an Employee

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – documentation is essential when dealing with a poor performer. Have the questions above in writing and take notes of the employee’s response. Doing this will not only give you something to refer to when meeting with them at their annual review – hey I’m an optimist – but this documentation will be helpful should you need to exit the employee if they don’t turn things around.

Terminating an employee is a difficult decision to make. However, if you do regular check-ins with them, provide them with all the tools, training and resources to be successful and the employee does not turn things around, in my mind the employee has fired themselves. They knew the expectations and chose not to make changes. Devoting your time and attention to the right employees will not only make you a better leader and manager but will aid in your business’ success.

(Excerpts from SHRM Magazine, May 2009)