7 tips for firing underperformers with dignity and respect

Firing someone is never easy, but leaders must stand firm and evaluate the bigger picture.

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Have you ever needed to fire someone? Did the very thought fill you with dread or nausea? Have you ever put off letting someone go, hoping things will magically turn around?

If you’ve ever postponed terminating an employee, you are not alone. Unfortunately, like a toothache that only gets worse over time, bad behavior left unchecked leads to greater problems.

Here are seven tips for firing individuals respectfully while protecting you and your team:

1|Realize that feelings of anxiety and dread are normal. They indicate you care about people. Despite the discomfort, great leaders still do what needs to be done. It’s helpful to remember that feelings of guilt and apprehension usually go away within three days. Resentment and problem behaviors on the other hand will continue to grow.

2|Take responsibility for the well-being of your team and organization. While it is easy to make excuses and over-function for an underperforming team member, effective leaders see the big picture. Regardless of whether an individual is full-time or seasonal, their absenteeism, tardiness, bullying or slacking off negatively impact productivity and can demotivate entire teams and organizations.

3| Follow organizational policy, document conversations and give employees time to change. Be firm, kind and clear on expectations and what behaviors must be improved by when. Say things like, “If __________ doesn’t change by __________, you will be terminated.” Or, “If you do ______ again, you will no longer work here.” The bottom line is, getting fired should never come as a surprise. If an individual refuses to change, termination becomes their choice.

I worked with a leader concerning a chaotic employee whose life was a mess. While she always had a good excuse, the individual’s ongoing, last minute absenteeism created stress and repeatedly forced others to pick up the slack. I coached the leader to compassionately say, “Given all that is going on in your life, now might not be the best time for you to work here.” The employee agreed and the door was left open for rehiring once things stabilized. Instead of going away angrily, the employee left expressing gratitude.

While it is easy to make excuses and over-function for an under-performing team member, effective leaders see the big picture.

4|Don’t delegate the task of firing someone. Outstanding leaders do their own dirty work. One of the reasons you get paid the big bucks is to resolve problems. You repeatedly prove your worth and display integrity when you take care of employee problems.

5| Expect emotions, but don’t let yours get out of check. People confronted on problem behaviors often respond with excuses, tears or bullying. Refrain from becoming entangled or matching their emotions. Additionally, refuse to respond kindly if they become abusive. In a firm, calm voice say, “The tone of this conversation is no longer professional in nature.”

6|Stand firm in your decision. If you’ve followed company policy and given a team member a chance to change, don’t give in to requests for repeated chances. As Maya Angelou wisely said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them the first time.”

7|Immediately be forthcoming with your team. Once you’ve fired someone, assemble your direct reports and briefly, without violating confidentiality or the terminated person’s privacy, let them know what happened. Otherwise, rumors will run rampant and good employees will fear they are next.

While terminating someone will never be your favorite thing to do, as a great leader you are ultimately responsible for your organization and team. You earn the admiration of others, even if it is begrudging at times, when you resolve problems with dignity and respect.

The People IQ Expert®, Dr. Sherene McHenry, works with organizations that want to boost their productivity, People IQ and profits. Learn more at sherenemchenry.com.

September 2020
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