Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Firing Advice

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m faced with having to fire someone for the first time in my career. What advice would you give on handling this very crucial conversation?


Dear Hesitating,

Firing someone is never easy. It shouldn’t be. Whenever someone is unilaterally separated from his or her income stream, it’s likely to cause problems and it would be wrong to take the topic lightly. The task can be particularly difficult if you haven’t taken the right steps along the way. Here are some tips for ensuring that when it comes to letting someone go, you’re following a professional and sensitive path.

Provide early feedback. People are typically fired (as opposed to laid-off) for a cause. Either they don’t live up to their job description or they do something particularly bad—such as stealing money from the slush fund. Let’s address the more common issue—an employee doesn’t do his or her job well enough.

When faced with a poorly performing employee, supervisors often complain about the employee to friends and family or drop hints to the person, but fail to give clear and honest feedback until it’s too late—“Guess what? You’re fired!” That’s a mistake.

The moment you become aware of a performance problem, particularly one that puts the person’s job at risk, talk face-to-face with the person. Clearly and calmly describe the gap between what he or she is doing and what the job demands. Focus on behaviors and outcomes. Avoid vague, inflammatory terms such as “unreliable” or “hard to work with.” Stick with the facts. Explain exactly what needs to change and, where possible, advise the employee in ways to improve. Document your conversation.

Step up the consequences. If the person continues to perform below an acceptable level after you’ve given him or her feedback, increase the severity of the consequences. First meet with HR and ask for advice on how to put the person on formal notice that his or her job is at risk. For some companies, this is a written warning; others call for a face-to-face formal discussion; and some don’t have a structured process at all. Whatever the process recommended by HR, let the person know that if certain standards aren’t met, he or she will be on probation for a certain length of time, and if the problem still isn’t resolved, he or she will be asked to leave. The key point here is to give the person a clear “heads up” about where he or she is heading if things don’t change. “If you don’t improve, you’ll lose your job by this date.” Continue your documentation.

Offer detailed advice and coaching. As people start down a path that could end in losing their job, it’s your job to not only give them a warning, but also to help them improve their performance. Provide behaviorally specific coaching. That is, demonstrate or clearly explain what the person needs to do differently. If you don’t know exactly what the person is doing wrong, watch him or her in action. You can’t provide coaching by merely looking at the final score. Watch the person perform and see how he or she needs to change. If possible, suggest a class or perhaps a book or two—but only if you think additional learning can actually help (people often suggests classes because they don’t have the nerve to provide frank feedback). Document this step as well.

Prepare for the final meeting. If the person doesn’t improve, you’ll need to remove him or her from the job. Once again, meet with HR or your immediate boss to gather advice on how to handle the final meeting. How long will the person stay? Will there be a severance package? What else do you need to say? Know the detailed mechanics so you don’t make a promise the company won’t keep.

During the actual meeting, summarize the steps you’ve taken along with the specific warnings. Explain that you’re sorry that he or she hasn’t been able to come up to standard and that his or her job will be over as of the date you’ve selected. Explain any details such as severance, handoffs, file management, etc. If your company has any outplacement assistance, explain this as well. Ask for questions. Give the person to a chance to express his or her concerns or grief. Maintain a professional and humane tone throughout. Finally, complete your documentation.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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