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Thinking through termination

Thinking through termination

When an employee isn’t performing, there are usually many contributing reasons, and one of the most important jobs of a leader is to find those barriers to performance and remove them. If we never fire anyone, we are probably naïve. Even the best leaders make mistakes, and in most businesses, there are changes that occur over time to erode the fit between some employees and their employers.

My overwhelming response to firing is that it’s almost always tragic, and I have lost a great deal of sleep over the issue in my career. I also count among my most effective and transforming days as a leader those days on which I stepped up to a tough situation and did the right thing for the organization by making a tough termination decision.

Here are some considerations for thinking through termination

  • Compare the person’s performance against the vision you have for the position
    We often make the mistake of trying to help foster incremental improvements in an individual’s performance when we should be looking at what we want in the position. This has allowed me the freedom to act in cases where I might have otherwise asked the person to make some improvements and then essentially been trapped by them doing “enough” to save their jobs. Now I am more likely to look at the person and compare them to the real gold standard for the position. This also makes me more likely to seek better candidates for company openings- by using this visionary approach instead of settling for someone who “meets the qualifications.”


  • Do an honest review of the person’s process environment, supervisor, and training
    If these are deficient, you cut more slack. However, these can also be excuses NOT to act. There’s a delicate balance here, but I remember one particularly painful episode in which I fired an employee and then found out a great deal more about their environment after the fact. It may not have changed the outcome, but I should have known more before I blamed the person for so many of the outcomes. Likewise, even if some of these things are deficient, you don’t want a person who allows their self to be victimized by external forces. In many cases, you have to say, “I know things weren’t always as they should have been, but I would have looked for you to have more influence in creating change rather than simply putting up with poor outcomes.”


  • It’s OK to let someone go for lack of upside potential
    In some positions, in some organizations, you have to insist on having a person who’s on the way up in the organization. Organizations can become very stale and limiting if mediocre performers are allowed to clog up the works.


  • Would I be proud to have this person spend an hour with my top client- unsupervised?
    If not, then consider a change. This may not apply to lower level positions, but it certainly applies to professional positions.


  • The ultimate test- value against cost
    Sometimes it is this basic. If you have someone whose total cost is $100K, and they produce $200K in value, and you know someone else in the same position could produce $300K, then you owe it to stakeholders and employees to consider a change if there isn’t any real hope of getting the person up to the higher level.


  • Values are not negotiable
    No matter how well someone performs, they must be able to personify the organization’s values. I once terminated an employee on the spot for telling his supervisor to “*&%# off.” The individual was the service rep to our largest client. Within an hour of the termination I received a phone call from our company CEO and was challenged on my decision. I said I would do it again and that if he were allowed back, it would be at the cost of losing me. There is nothing that undermines a company more than hypocrisy.


  • People skills are not negotiable
    Even your best performers have to get along. They may need much coaching and maturing to get there, but it should be an expectation that is precisely that.


  • Not every organization accommodates every style and culture
    Sometimes marriage is a great metaphor. You can take two fantastic individuals and produce one dreadful marriage. Employment is sometimes the same- things like chemistry and fit are real things, and the leaders must understand them. Now, of course, you should be learning enough about these things to do a better job of recruitment and selection, and if you do this is a problem that can be almost 100% eliminated over time.

About the Author

Sarah Thomson

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