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Help Someone: Fire Them! July 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In my last post, I wrote about helping successful people succeed even more by finding them opportunities outside of your organization.We can’t always accommodate every successful person; good leaders help these high-achievers by letting them go to excel somewhere else.  It’s hard, but it’s necessary.

But what of those who are not succeeding in your team?  Ironically, you use the same solution: you let them go to excel somewhere else.  It may be even harder, but it’s certainly just as necessary.

Typically, a person is failing in your organization because they cannot handle their job.  We’ve all been in this position, recognizing that an employee simply is not going to be successful for a variety of reasons.  In these cases, after exhausting every way to make them successful in their current spot, we must find ways to make them successful somewhere else.

For people who truly want to succeed, this can ultimately be a rewarding experience.  I once had a person who worked for me as a Unix administrator.  Believe it or not, this was his dream job, but for everyone else it was a nightmare.  He was simply not cut out for the world of Unix systems administration.  As his performance declined, I finally had to sit this person down and give them the bad news: he was being removed from the Unix admin team.

Tears literally rolled down his cheeks as he saw his dream job disappear.  But we did not fire this person.  Recognizing the desire but acknowledging the skills mismatch, we moved him to the email management team.  And he thrived!  He became the greatest email admin ever, and grew to love that job.  Later, he shared with me that being cut from the Unix group as the best thing that ever happened to him. The pain of breaking his heart led to the joy of unforeseen success.

But what if you don’t have a great alternative position for someone who cannot handle their job?  You still must let them go, but it is up to them to find their new opportunity.  Even when we have to fire someone, it is still in their best interest.  Someone who is not succeeding in their current position is not happy.  That negative influence makes everyone unhappy.  By moving them out so they can find a place to be happy, everyone ultimately wins.

I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to fire a number of people. In almost every case, when they ask why, I explain how they will be incapable of succeeding in their current position.  I try to show them that moving to a new opportunity really is for the best, but that’s hard to see right away. But when that person moves on to some place new, where they can succeed and become happy, they will look back on being fired as a good thing.  Getting let go is always awful, but it can be the cathartic moment that leads to unimagined success.

Most people hate the thought of firing someone and will avoid doing it at almost any cost.  That’s a bad decision and the mark of a weak leader.  If you can honestly say that you have exhausted every tool at your disposal to help someone succeed, you have no choice but to let them go. Retaining poor performers to avoid an unpleasant confrontation hurts them, hurts your team, and ultimately hurts you.  Good leaders fire unsuccessful people.

And therein lies the importance of firing someone.  You are not punishing them for poor performance; you are releasing them to deliver a better performance somewhere else.  In these cases, the only true failure is the leader who does not have the wherewithal to fire someone so that they can succeed somewhere else.

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1. Monica Diaz - July 30, 2009

I agree very much with your sensitive and to the point take on this important subject. Letting people go is always a good thing ultimately, but in this economy things have changed quite a bit. People are reluctant to leave even a terribly mismatched job for fear of not being able to find another. So you make a good point that it is not only about your leadership but their happiness and your teams’.

I do appreciate the way you say that “if you can honestly say you have exhausted every tool at your disposal to help someone succeed” In that case, you are in a great position as a leader to make such a decision. So many times this is not the case and unreal expectations have been placed on good people. Still, it is better to be looking for a new job than to stay at one where the expectations are not attainable in the current situation.

Tough times also require more from everyone, and many leaders are facing the difficult task of firing people due to cutbacks. This is a whole new ballgame. Sometimes you fire people that you would otherwise keep. If this is the case, it is important and the mark of a true leader to be truthful and honest with people in what is prompting the decision.

Such an important subject and many leaders are really not prepared to do it in the most effective manner.

2. Lynn M - July 30, 2009

That’s a great success story! Most negative situations offer opportunities if you look for them. We just need to keep reminding ourselves that there are many solutions (not just the obvious one) to a problem.

3. Manish Mohan - August 24, 2009

Firing is a tough decision, especially performance related firing, even when times are good. It is many times a failure on part of the manager(s) being unable to match skills and the role provided to the person, and even training/coaching provided to the person for the role.

While firing is an option available, each individual should make attempts to improve their skills and even perhaps try to find something that will suit his/her skills. Generally if one is getting an average rating (whatever it may be called in their organization) in their performance appraisal for more than four years in an organization, one should realize it is time to move on and find other pastures where he/she can thrive.

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