A reader writes:
Recently I had to fire one of my employees. There was a history of tardiness, no-call/no-show behavior, and lack of performance at work. All of this behavior was documented, and the employee was put on at least two action plans. I tried sharing tips from my own life (because I am a person whose internal clock runs five minutes late), writing notes when I saw a job well done, or heard a customer talk about how much my employee helped solve a difficult problem. I really wanted my employee to succeed. I knew that she was the sole provider for her family. Her son is very young, and her husband a stay-at-home Dad.
I feel that the firing was just, and quite frankly, the right thing to do. Her performance was starting to affect her co-workers. My co-managers and I did all that we could to modify the employee’s behavior before it came an issue. In the end, however, the employee choose not to change her behavior.
I am grieving for her. I know that her life has been made very difficult by this termination. I’m just wondering how long this feeling of being “bummed” will last. This is the first time I’ve had to fire an employee.
Firing someone sucks. It sucks even if the person has been warned repeatedly and had every chance to improve. It’s just a bad feeling to be the person who takes someone else’s job away from them. In fact, if it ever doesn’t suck to fire someone, it’s probably worth looking inward to figure out where your compassion went.
However, as hard as firing someone is, it’s also critically important to your job as a manager. Having the right people on your team makes an enormous difference in how effective you are and how much you achieve. And so holding a high bar and expecting people to meet it, warning them when they’re falling short, and taking action when that doesn’t change anything are some of your most basic and crucial responsibilities as a manager.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. So you’ve got to remember that you didn’t fire this employee on a whim or without warning or for an unjust reason. It sounds like you clearly told her what she would need to change in order to keep her job, and she chose not to make those changes (changes that sound pretty simple to make).
You also need to remember that she’s an adult who makes her own choices, and those choices have consequences. Maybe this will be a wake-up call for her that will help her do better in the future. Or maybe it won’t. But again, you treated her fairly and honestly, and you made the right choice for your team, and that’s all you can do.
By the way, it’s worth noting that there are two different types of firings: There are firings like this one, where the person could have saved their job if they were motivated to but choose not to do what that would require (whether it’s coming in on time, or meeting deadlines, or following directions — i.e., things within their control). And then there are firings where the person is trying really hard and just can’t meet the bar you need.
The second type is a lot harder. As much as it sucks to fire anyone, it sucks a lot more to fire someone who tried as hard as they could to make it work. It sucks less to fire someone who, say, falsified a timesheet or blew off work.
So you’re actually kind of lucky that she made it so clear-cut for you. And she did make it clear-cut; her behavior sounds pretty damn far over the line. Not showing up to work and not bothering to call? That would have gotten her fired on the spot in a lot of places (and probably should have with you). She was being pretty flagrant in her disrespect for you and her coworkers. In fact, it sounds like you might be spending more time feeling bad about firing her than she spent thinking about her job in the first place.
All that said, it’s okay and normal to feel compassion. But please make sure that you’re also feeling good about looking out for the health of your team, holding people accountable for their own behavior, and enforcing fair and reasonable consequences. Because there are managers out there who don’t do those things, and believe me, they’re the ones who no one good wants to work for. So hard as this was, you’re a better manager for doing it.
And now hopefully you can give that job to someone who deserves it.