Employees deserve a warning - not mental telepathy - before firing

Dear Joan,
I am facing a promotion, which I am reluctant to take for one painful reason. I have been in supervisory positions before and I dread having to fire anyone. What can you recommend that could help with me overcome the anxiety I feel when I have to terminate someone’s employment?

I don’t think firing an employee is on the top of any manager’s A list. However, your strong anxiety about it seems to be a major roadblock in your career path. Perhaps I can suggest a few things to help you jump the psychological hurdle as well as the tactical one.

Let’s tackle the psychological issue first. I don’t believe I’ve ever fired anyone…I make sure they fired themselves. What I mean is that I believe that most people try to do the best job they can, but some people—in spite of their initial intentions—begin to derail. There are countless reasons. For example, the job changes and the person isn’t suited to the new expectations; the employee gets bored or complacent; the person gets into interpersonal battles; or the person’s personality interferes with the job that needs to get done. Sometimes it doesn’t have anything at all to do with the person’s performance, but the business needs dictate the decision.

In any event, I believe that I owe certain things to my employees. For example, at the very least I owe them a clear explanation of what it is that I expect from them. I see too many managers who don’t spend time on the front end but sure are there with the criticism at the tail end, when performance doesn’t measure up to their phantom standards. Managing by mental telepathy is like playing "gotcha."

I also believe that the most valuable gift I can give to my employees is coaching and feedback, so they know, at all times, how they are doing. In addition, it’s important to me to know what their goals are, so that I can help them achieve the things that motivate them and make them happy to work here.

So, if someone isn’t performing up to standards, they know it, and my goal becomes helping them figure out what they can do about it. I make it clear that it’s their responsibility to solve it. If their repeated attempts to improve continue to fail, the conversation needs to get more directed and time frames need to be set. I try to explore if they are unable or unwilling to perform the job. I try to determine if they’ve received enough training and coaching.

My job is to balance the needs of the business, the needs of the other co-workers and the needs of the employee themselves. If this three-legged stool is off balance, something needs to be done. At this point I draw the line in the sand and give the employee measurements and a timeline, during which time I need to see specific improvements. When that line is crossed for the last time, the employee knows they’ve just fired themselves.

The psychological underpinnings to this approach include:

§      I believe that I have done everything in my power to help the employee succeed.

§      I believe that the employee has been given the information and the responsibility to make their own choices.

§      I believe that the other employees trust that I will treat them with the same dignity and spirit of helpfulness.

§      I believe that the needs of the business, other co-workers and the employee have been served. If the problem isn’t addressed, morale sags and I fail to do my job as a leader. If the employee continues to perform poorly, his or her self-esteem suffers and the person knows they aren’t being a successful part of the team.

The tactics:

1.      At the first sign of a performance problem with employees, watch for a pattern and then address it immediately. Make it clear that it is their responsibility to solve the problem. Give them specific examples and be clear about how it is getting in their way. Start keeping notes about this situation.

2.      Tell the person you want to help them and then follow through with coaching, training, or any reasonable assistance you can provide. Follow up.

3.      If more than two or three conversations fail to solve the problem and the issue is serious say, "I feel it’s only fair to tell you what could happen if this doesn’t turn around." Let them know what the consequences could be. In many cases, the employee doesn’t realize how serious it is until you say these words. If you don’t tell the person, you aren’t being honest and they don’t have all the information they need to make a choice. (By the way, sometimes an employee will quit at this stage because they know they are either unable or unwilling to do what it takes.) At this stage you should summarize each meeting in a memo and give it to the employee.

4.      At this last step, set a specific timeline by which they must do specific things to demonstrate that they are heading in the right direction. If the employee turns it around, they are proud of what they have accomplished, but if it doesn’t work out, the employee knows that you both gave it everything you could.

Ironically, firing someone can even be a good thing. People have told me that, in retrospect, it forced them to find a job that was better suited to their talents and interests.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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