Periodically I hear someone complain about a coworker or an employee and say “but it’s impossible to fire anyone here, so we’re stuck.”
It’s not true.
No sane organization truly forbids firing people. At worst, it usually means “we have lots of hoops to jump through in order to fire someone, but it can be done.”
Even in the federal government and even in unionized workplaces — both of which people are fond of saying make it impossible to fire people — you can fire people. There’s paperwork and documentation and it takes a while, but it can be done if the manager is willing to put in the time.
And as a manager, you must be willing to put in the time. Otherwise you’re neglecting one of the most fundamental responsibilities you have, which is to address it when someone isn’t working out.
In fact, one of the worst things a manager can do is to assume they can’t fire people or decide that they don’t want to bothered with whatever bureaucracy it would take to do it. That’s the same as throwing up your hands and saying “I have no control over who’s on my team” — and controlling the makeup of your team is one of the most important tools a manager has at her disposal. It’s crucial; you cannot fully manage without that authority.
So what does “we can’t fire people here” really mean? Usually it means that you have to document the issues, sometimes extensively, and warn the person and give them a chance to improve, and document that you did that. It usually means putting the person on a formal performance improvement plan, with specific metrics that they need to meet within a certain amount of time to keep their job. Some organizations may require that that amount time is many months past what is reasonable, but it’s not infinite. It might also mean showing higher-ups who are reluctant to fire that in this case the person is truly a bad fit for the role.
Basically, it’s the stuff that a good manager should be doing when someone is struggling anyway; it’s just often stretched out longer than it should be.
So when managers say “I can’t fire anyone,” it means “I’m not willing to put in the multiple months it would take to do it.” And since that’s almost always the wrong decision, they’re also saying “I’m not willing to do this hard piece of my job.”
* All of this assumes that you’re in the U.S., as I can’t speak to practices in other countries.