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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Forced Retirement of a Valued Employee

Joseph Grenny is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


Crucial ConfrontationsQDear Crucial Skills,

Our employee, “Mr. Ned,” will turn 70 in September after working for us for 17 years. He has been one of our most productive employees and a model for the younger technicians to aspire to. However, in recent months he has started to slow down and the quality of his work is declining.

While we care for him and appreciate his years of hard work, how can we tell him that we must let him go?

Shy about Retiring

A Dear Shy,

In order to get this conversation right, you will need equal measures of respect, firmness, and clarity.

1. Respect. There’s a good chance Mr. Ned will find this conversation terribly unpleasant. However, you can reduce his suffering immensely if you make it plain that he is talking with someone who regards him highly. If he walks away concluding that he is not respected, your message about his performance will be lost. Share specific expressions of appreciation and recollections of important contributions he has made over the years. Use these compliments judiciously throughout your conversation.

2. Firmness. If you’ve concluded that he needs to retire, do not string him along by turning your conversation into a performance review. If you fail to communicate that this is not a motivation problem, but an insolvable ability problem, he may try to bargain with you for things that are not physically possible.

Now, I’m assuming in this situation that you have followed proper HR procedures and documented concerns over some period of time so that it is your prerogative to require retirement. If you have not, you will need to step back and begin that process.

3. Clarity. This is one of the most common areas in which people under-prepare for crucial confrontations. You need to be crystal clear on the facts. What evidence do you have that his performance has slipped to unacceptable levels? Can you demonstrate that it is a pattern? Do you have enough examples persuade him that this is not a motivation problem? If he is desperate to hang onto his job, he may try to refute your examples. To avoid this, you need to do two things: 1) refer regularly to the recurring pattern; 2) provide enough data points to establish the pattern.

For example, if he says, “But the customer kept feeding us new requirements on that drawing, so of course it would take longer!” You need to say, “I understand there may have been special circumstances. The issue is that over a period of months, with over a dozen drawings like this, your turnaround time has more than doubled. The pattern is the problem.”

Now, he may have noticed the same problem and is relieved to have it in the open. I watched this happen several years ago with a very senior engineer who was losing his hearing in a way that impeded his performance. He was too proud to wear a hearing aid until a colleague had a crucial confrontation with him in a wonderfully respectful but firm way. This storied engineer was grateful the issue had surfaced as the burden of pretending there was no problem had become quite taxing. The conversation helped him acknowledge he was moving to a different phase of life and take steps that prepared him for retirement. If your colleague tumbles to the conclusion, stop sharing data and simply move to a supportive conversation to explore next steps.

Finally, let me suggest an alternative option. I have seen many instances when companies are prudent enough to be creative and retain the wisdom aging employees have to offer. For example, could he move to a part-time role? Could he become an advisor? Could he mentor younger employees—even on a contract basis? Or could he simply be invited back now and again for project reviews?

It’s easy to underestimate the immense tacit knowledge senior employees have and later regret letting all of their experience walk out the door. One of the most sincere expressions of respect—and wisest HR moves you could make—would be to find a creative way to not “put him down,” but keep him up!

I can tell you care deeply about Mr. Ned and am confident he’ll know that as you hold this very crucial confrontation.


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

22 thoughts on “Forced Retirement of a Valued Employee”

  1. Dale Brochis

    You missed a great opportunity here. This is not simply making a case for dismissal. He has been loyal to you – you need to respect that he cannot just pick up and find another job….at 70. Your decision must include information on retirement planning.

    “He has been one of our most productive employees and a model for the younger technicians to aspire to.” If he has been a dedicated employee and his widget production drops, are there not other work practices or characteristics that could still be of value to the organization, but in a different way?

    Why fire him? Why not ask him to transition into mentorship, training, quality improvement? Beethoven’s piano teacher could not play a note – but boy……take a look at his student.

  2. Pat Wierengo

    A major question was missed here. Is he simply slowing down to the level of his fellow employees? I’ve seen where slackers are allowed to last forever, however good dedicated hard working employees are let go for a slight decrease in performance which is still way above the retained slackers performance. Make sure you are judging him against the big picture, not just against himself.

  3. Kim

    I know many people who are 70+ who are still in the workforce. My own father is 76 and only retired this year – he was in sales and traveled – by car – and although now retired, he still drives from TX to IN to visit still living relatives. It’s understandable if quality of work is an issue, but slowing down a little should not be. With those in MY age group not eligible to apply for social security until age 72, there will be more over 70 people in the work force in the years to come. I hope that if I slow down due to arthritis or simply age, that I am not going to told I’m no longer a good enough employee in spite of giving my best years to my company.

  4. Susan Humphrey

    We have a part timer who came back after her retirement to cushion the family income. She gave 37 years to this institution before she retired. We love having her here for a couple days each week. She is our go-to person who knows everything. She loves training new workers and you can bet they are trained right.

    Our director thinks of this as a family. I was out for six weeks getting a new knee and close to the end of my leave I stopped by the office and she didn’t realize what she said when she welcomed me into her office saying “We cannot wait until you are home again.”

  5. MJ

    I would encourage Shy about Retiring to simply ask Mr. Ned “Is there something we (the employer) can do to help you?” after noting the observed decline in the quality of his work. There may be an underlying medical condition that could be addressed with a simple work-related modification or, in the case of a disability, a reasonable accommodation.

  6. Pat Bellace

    From a legal perspsective, you cannot (for the most part) force a person to retire. You can, of course, terminate a person for performance reasons. However, what I read, in both the question and the answer, speaks to an underlying age prejudice. Is it really relevant that he is 70 OR has something else happened in “recent months” (the noticed period of decline). Is there a health issue? An emotional issue? These could all be explored (for example, if the organization has an EAP). Also, how are productivity & quality being measured? Perhaps this person is no longer as quick as he was X years ago. But is he able to handle more complex projects more quickly because he knows more? Also, I agree with the first responder (Dale Brochis). Assuming this person still has value to offer, there are many avenues available to retain him in some capacity. Finally, has the questioner asked this question: how much knowledge will walk out the door the day this man leaves and is the company ready for that?

  7. Sue Miller

    I had an employee in her 70’s who was no longer able to perform her
    duties because of eyesight and hearing problems. She would not recognize
    that these were issues affecting her job and I was forced to send her to
    Occupational Health for a “fitness for duty” evaluation. She was found
    physically not to be able to perform her job. It was a relief to her co-workers because her problems had been negatively affecting them for some time. The down side is she blamed me for her forced retirement, refused
    to have a retirement party and hasn’t spoke to me since.
    Older workers need respect and feedback on performance. They need to know when and why (respectfully) it is time for them to retire.

  8. Judy Westphal

    I am sorry that I can not let this one go by without a comment.
    I would first ask this manager if he realaly knows the facts. Is he a hands on manager? This “older worker” may be bending under the strain of carrying a lot of other workers have a very diverse work ethic. He may be spending more time sharing and teaching feeling that his experience has value. Has this manager done a qualitative and quantitative comparison of the work of others with similar responsibility? I know this will take more effort than just looking at a number.
    Forget that he is human, and throw him away with some well crafted words. Never admit that you are now paying three other people at a lower pay rate to do what he was doing. This will reduces the work of the manager because he can change things up and not really manage at all.

  9. Terri Lynn Palmer

    I agree with all that has been proposed thus far. However, with 17 years of being loyal, productive, and an aspiration for younger technicians and only the last recent months of ‘slowing’ down, I would suggest that maybe there is another concern that is too softly spoken. Your additional statement that Ned will be 70 may be one of these bigger concerns. If Ned were 40 slowing down and diminishing in quality, would you have need to write to Crucial Skills in the first place?

    70 is definitely different. Age discrimination is real and few office cultures can tolerate disparate ages. Before you have your conversation, you should be sure you understand what additional concerns that 70 brings to the subject. How do the affects of age inherently affect ability on the job?

    Is it declining health, memory, hearing, agility, eyesight? Are standards for these abilities in the job description? Could it be that the affects of Ned’s age intimidates or embarasses co-workers? Is their a growing strain on co-workers who provide special behaviors that help Ned manage his day? Were they all hoping for relief with a happy retirement that never came? Be sure you are able to have a conversation about Ned’s productivity and quality as if he were 40. I haven’t met a 70 year old that thrives on pity, especially not a man who has taken professionalism seriously.

    There is much talk about tolerance of different ethnic cultures in the work place. I’d like to read some dialogue about the impact of age cultures in the work place. Will it be a new workplace requirement to provide environments for aged workers? For some jobs, why is retirement expected in the first place?

    I appreciate Crucial Skills’e-Newsletter. Thank you for your thoughtful stories and advice.

  10. Arlene Taylor

    I agree with many of the points brought up. There seems to be underlying age discrimination here in both the question and the answer. The questions Pat B and Judy W bring up are very valid and need to be answered. As someone who plans to work until age 70 before considering retirement, I would hope that I would be given the same consideration as anyone else of any age if there seemed to be productivity issues; not just written off to “old age”. Thank you for the work you do.

  11. Joseph Grenny

    Thanks Dale. I couldn’t agree more. I offered just such a suggestion in the last part of my response because I believe just because someone slows down does not mean they don’t have an enormous store of capacity to continue to contribute. That’s certainly what I would do at VitalSmarts.
    @Dale Brochis

  12. Joseph Grenny

    This is a good point. I took the assessment at face value and chose to respond to the “how to raise the conversation” point. I did not challenge the conclusion. And I think it is very much worth challenging. Thanks.
    @Arlene Taylor

  13. Joseph Grenny

    You raise some important questions that challenge the questioner to reflect more deeply on his/her conclusions. I think this is wise. Of course, neither of us knows the particulars here, so we’re just speculating. I realized as I was reading your note that one of the images that came to mind and colored my response was experiences I’ve had in hospitals with aging physicians where “slowing down” meant “patients at risk.” In that situation, I think the organization would be unethical to not encourage retirement as the slowdown has an effect on safety. If it is simply “he’s not producing as many widgets” but the widgets are still good quality, then it’s a different situation entirely.

    One question to you–if it is the latter rather than the former situation, would it be discriminatory to have a conversation about him continuing his employment but at a lower salary? If he is still adding value, but less of it, wouldn’t they be vulnerable to a discriminatory suit for offering to pay less even though the pay was more in line with the number of “widgets” he was producing.

    Just pondering…
    @Terri Lynn Palmer

  14. Joseph Grenny

    Hey Judy–I guess if the reality were as you describe it, I would agree with the unethical and unwise decision to force him into retirement. As with most of these kinds of questions–the response to the questioner is always governed by the “story” you tell yourself about what’s really going on. You raise good questions. And I also believe there are scenarios where the employer is making the ethical decision by asking an employee to retire. If this is not one of them, your comments may help the questioner question his/her own assumptions. Thanks. @Judy Westphal

  15. Sunshine

    Frankly, I find this entire article to be offensive. The question itself is discriminatory and stereotypes older and younger workers. It should be brought to light that age discrimination is illegal under federal and other laws. First of all, from an employment standpoint, it is unlawful to make decisions based upon someone’s age, and it is not permissible for an employer to decide if or when an employee needs to retire. Any conversation you begin under that premise is questionable, and it greatly diminishes any other potentially sound advice you may be offering. You are making some very inappropriate assumptions…just stick to the behavior of the person, and leave out the labels.

  16. SLCCOM

    What is this part about how getting hearing aids means “moving on to a new part of life?” And then on to retirement? There are a large number of people with hearing loss who do not wear hearing aids, and they are of all ages. In some cases it is denial. In some cases it is “pride.” I believe that in most cases it is $$$$. Generally, you can expect to pay at least $2,000 for just one hearing aid, and usually, people do not have that money sitting around to spend, especially if it is their first pair. Or they have other plans for it and must do some reconfiguring.

    I suppose you could look at getting hearing aids as moving on to a better communicating part of life, but as a code for getting old? That very attitude is a big one contributing to people refusing to get help for their hearing loss before it becomes crippling.

    Ageism is ugly, and so is ableism. Good communication strategies, good technology, and good will will keep a company running well and keep loyal employees — including the younger ones, who are closely watching to see how you treat their coworkers. One day the recession will be over and a lot of very good people will be jumping ship when they see that people were being forced out against their will despite nearly two decades of loyal, hard work.

    I know you are getting raked over the coals here — but you were apparently making all kinds of unwarranted assumptions about how capable people can be with a little technology, good management, support and the elimination of ASSumptions.

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  18. HR in Ohio

    I’m glad that Joseph referred the writer to HR, but I wish he would’ve stopped there on this one. As a couple of commenters have noted, there are serious legal issues here. First, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act which prohibits discrimination against anyone ages 40 and older. There is no cap. The law also specifically prohibits a mandatory retirement age, except for certain key positions. Most states have similar laws prohibiting age discrimination (although some states only protect individuals ages 40-70).

    Another law that hasn’t been mentioned is the Americans with Disabilities Act. ADA protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations so that a qualified individual with a disability can safely and effectively perform his/her job duties. We cannot assume that he is disabled just because of his age nor can we pry, but if he has disclosed a medical condition like deteriorating eye-sight, arthritis, heart problems, etc…, then we should have a crucial conversation / negotiation with him about possible accommodations.

    Finally, I’m not just about complying with the law. Asking you to merely focus on complying with the law is like asking you to get a “D” in school. Many of the other comments addressing the “human” element are “A+” in my opinion.

  19. Devon Scheef

    Thought provoking scenario. It seems to be less about a conversation and more about the organization’s view of how long-term employees contribute. There is much discussion and hand wringing in organizations about the need for knowledge transfer and wisdom sharing. Mr. Ned, who has been an excellent performer and a role model to newer technicals, represents the organization’s explicit and implicit knowledge. To consider only his physical contribution is missing the larger picture.

  20. Margret


    I totally agree!!!!

  21. Mary Jamison

    I’m so glad to see that so many people noted the implicit age discrimination in this situation. If we are going to insist that people have to work throughout most of their lifespan–until they’re just a few years away from dying–we are going to have to accommodate everything that entails, from hearing aids to mass transportation.

  22. Martin

    I have a coworker who cannot complete daily tasks. We are a branch of a larger company, and work with the public. I have been fixing his mistakes, as well as carrying the work load – he is only capable of greeting consumers, and answering the phone. His job duties, however, include working 50/50 on the computer, filing, filling out documents, writing letters, etc. He has not done these things. His computer skills have deteriorated to the point where he can no longer open a word document, does not remember how to fill in databases, and can no longer file forms in alphabetical order. He is in his 80s. Our supervisor (who works in the main office, not in our branch) says we cannot let the coworker go because he is in his 80s, and we’ll be cited for age discrimination. His decrease in skills might have to do with age issues, but if he was 40, he would be fired for not doing his job. There is NO WAY OUT for me. I have been told to document his short comings and lack of skills – so I am doing that (which is time consuming), and I am required to retrain him on everything (we have written task procedures, but he refuses to refer to them), so I have added that to my work load, along with picking up all of the office tasks except saying “hello” and answering the phone (even though our jobs are identical). So, now what? What on earth am I to do? He could do the job 20 years ago – even 10 years ago – but the past eight years have been a nightmare. I am worn out. I stay because job opportunities where I am at are slim, and I like what I do – but I am so so tired of picking up his slack. I stay late, come in early, and then still cannot get everything done. So far, after months of documenting the issues, the things he isn’t doing, corporate continues to say the same things: “sure, he isn’t doing the work but we cannot let him go because he is too old to fire.” He has been seen by a doctor – but told the doctor (he told me this) that he likes to work because it “keeps him social.” So the doctor said, “don’t quit if you like working.” I am going absolutely nuts! There is NO WAY TO FIRE THIS GUY! I have ten years to go before retirement, and I will retire before he does. He said he will never retire – his words, “I plan to work here until I die.” With parents who both lived into their late 90s, I really will retire before he will. Surely there must be a way to force him out because he is not doing his work – which corporate does not dispute – but how? I am seriously considering stopping cataloging his mistakes and lack of work. The thing is, if I just stop doing his work, it will affect our productivity and they could close our branch office – then the people in our small town will have to travel more than 40 miles to get the service. So, what do I do?

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