how do you deal with having to fire someone?

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.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. Charlotte*

    Allison, your knowledge of all things management-related never ceases to amaze. A particularly compassionate handling of a touchy subject. Lots of great posts going on here too! Keep it up. :)

  2. Interviewer*

    I always view it this way: if I am sitting across the table from you about to deliver the bad news, you are the one who put yourself there – not me. Keep in mind, if you have that many people depending on you, you should not be risking your livelihood by ignoring disciplinary actions and performance improvement plans. You should be stepping up and delivering.

    She didn’t do it, despite repeated warnings and coaching that future employers may not be willing to give her. While you can certainly be sympathetic to the position this puts her family in, the blame belongs squarely on her doorstep, not yours.

    The worst termination to recover from is laying off good people who can’t see it coming and have no real control over the decision. One day I had to help with a mass layoff, which involved sitting with them during their term meeting, and then going back to their workstations to help pack up their belongings. The one that got me the most that day was when I took him back to his workstation, he didn’t say a word, but his co-workers (who had already gotten wind of what was going on) came over and circled him and started praying quietly with him. I had to step out into the hall with a Kleenex and compose myself. I still tear up thinking about that moment.

    1. Anonymous*

      “I always view it this way: if I am sitting across the table from you about to deliver the bad news, you are the one who put yourself there – not me. Keep in mind, if you have that many people depending on you, you should not be risking your livelihood by ignoring disciplinary actions and performance improvement plans.”

      I love this. Some people act as though their livelihood isn’t at risk by refusing to improve. There are some employees who are one paycheck away from financial ruin, but they behave as if it doesn’t matter if they get fired. If the employee refuses to improve, that tells me they don’t really care if they lose their job (I’m taking about those who ignore the most basic job requirements, the things that are so simple to fix, not the employees who are a poor fit for the job itself). Not only that, but they don’t respect their manager or the other employees who have to pick up their slack.

  3. Anonymous*

    Remember: You can’t change someone who doesn’t want to change or refuses to acknowledge a change is needed. And no matter how much you want to grab them by the shoulders and give them a good shaking because you really want them to understand, it won’t do any good until they get it through their own heads in their own way.

  4. The Retail Raptor*

    The best piece of advice I have ever heard, when it comes to letting people go, was from my father. He told me once, “They can’t succeed just because you want them to. They have to want to.”

  5. Joey*

    I always remind myself I’m doing a disservice keeping people in jobs they shouldn’t be in. In other words I’m only prolonging the misery for both of us when they can get on with their lives and find a job they’ll be happier and more productive in.

  6. nyxalinth*

    I’ve had only one firing that didn’t occur because it was a sucky place with sucky management. In these cases, I had no warning, no advice, no write ups, no nothing. It was just “Sorry, you don’t fit in, off you go” in most cases. All things considered, it was a blessing each time.

    Twice, it was my fault, and I recognize that, the rest of them were layoffs.

  7. J.B.*

    As someone working in a place with an employee who won’t be fired despite massively not doing the job for years, I believe you really and truly did the right thing.

  8. Dawn*

    I like what Interviewer said about how employees are risking their livelihood by refusing to fix the things they need to fix. It shoulds like OP’s employee had issues that were very simple to fix. How hard is it to come to work on time, call when you won’t be in, and do your job? Those are very basic things. I can’t believe someone would behave that way knowing that she is the sole breadwinner of the family. Maybe she just kept thinking, “They’re not serious. They won’t really fire me.” Who knows? OP shouldn’t agonize over this anymore. The employee put herself in the position of losing her sole income in the family.

    I’ve come extremely close to having to fire employees several times in my career. The first time was someone who was chronically late 5 to 15 minutes several times a week and was *extremely* disorganized. I agonized over wanting to fire her and felt terrible, but then my boss told me, “She put herself in this position. Not you. You laid out an action plan, but she chose not to follow it.” Once I realized that, I felt much better. I didn’t feel responsible for her anymore. Rather, I felt disappointed that she refused to step up and make the changes. She could have been a great employee if she came in on time and got her desk and files organized. Lucky for me she resigned before I could fire her.

    1. Pandora Amora*

      What kind of job did thus employee gave where the difference between “fired” and doing a “great job” was the thin line if 20 minutes tardiness and an organized desk?

  9. GeekChic*

    When I first started managing my father gave me two pieces of advice that have always stuck with me:

    1) Firing someone *should* be emotionally difficult for a manager – simply because of the impact you are having on a person. If it ever feels easy, you have become too cavalier to be a fair manager.

    2) That firing (and discipline in general) is difficult is not an excuse to shirk your duties as a manager.

    The first time I had to fire someone was enormously difficult – but it was my job. I am grateful I never had to lay anyone off.

  10. Anonymous*

    It’s so sad to see the excuses that managers manufacture to avoid accountability for ruining others’ lives…’ve all got justification after justification here, about why it’s ok – and god forgive you, even laudable – to take away a family’s entire livelihood. The bottom line is, this OP took away the income for an entire family. No one in the other 99% should be ok with this. You can spout management maxims all you want, but the end result, OP, is that you chose to destroy a family.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is absurd. The employee in this case chose to fire herself. Did you even read the letter? She wasn’t showing up for work and wasn’t even bothering to call.

      But even if it weren’t as clear-cut, it’s ridiculous to say that there’s a moral problem with firing an employee who isn’t meeting the bar you need. I’d be interested to know how you’d feel about having an incompetent auto mechanic work on your car, or a distracted pilot flying your plane, or even just a rude and unhelpful customer service rep when you need assistance.

    2. Dawn*

      The OP’s employee shouldn’t have put her family’s only source of income in jeopardy. OP laid out an action plan. The employee refused to improve. She fired her. End of story. I’d do the same thing. It’s the employee’s own stupidity and laziness that got her fired.

      I think I’d really like to come work for you, Anonymous. I get the feeling I’d have smooth sailing ahead: get to work whenever I want (nope, not calling to say I’ll be late either), assuming I actually feel like going in; wear whatever I want; blow off all those reports I’m supposed to write. No worries about having to be accountable to someone.

    3. The OP*

      Anonymous, I think you’re missing the point. I believe in the 99%. I support the Occupy Wall Street movement, and stand behind their mission. Their mission is creating accountability for the people who abuse the system for personal gain.

      Accountability hurts. It forces you to be responsible for choices you make. In fact, I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I supported the 99% but didn’t enforce accountability in my life and in the way I manage.

  11. Linda Kuriloff*

    Hi Alison.
    If I commented as often as I agree and appreciate your responses, you’d think I was stalking you.

    This reader definitely has a softer heart than the former employee. Being consistently tardy usually is the fruit of not considering how your lateness is costing/hurting other people. When that really sinks in you can start fighting against the habit in earnest.

    I had a long-time habit of running late that was a “bear” to reform, but harsh consequences were helpful. They helped me understand the depth of the infraction (which in my own mind was minor) against others.

    The manager should recognize that firing the tardy employee may be just the consequence she needs to do some serious changing. Keeping her on would’ve sent a sign that tardiness is not that bad (and culprits already think that) and it may have continued. Firing her was best for all involved.

    1. L*

      “I had a long-time habit of running late that was a “bear” to reform, but harsh consequences were helpful. They helped me understand the depth of the infraction (which in my own mind was minor) against others.”

      This is me, and I really admire that you were able to “reform” yourself. I admit that I am still working on it. My wakeup call was realizing that that my belief that being late wasn’t a big deal was rooted in my own insecurity and low self-esteem. I constantly undervalued my own contributions and accomplishments to the point that I just assumed that no one would notice or care if I was late. Turns out they did, and I needed that wakeup call, for the sake of my self-esteem if nothing else.

      In this case, it sounds like the manager tried to do everything she could to help the former employee. I hope this experience helps the former employee look inward and think about the motivations behind her tardiness.

  12. Anda T*

    Oh wow. 10 years ago, I was this employee. It wasn’t until I was put into the situation I am now, with my boss that I appreciate how long they let me ride it out. I went through rebellion, mad hair color changes, facial piercings and whatever else you could think of. They gave me a long leash and I sure enough hung myself with it. If I could, I’d go back and apologize to my manager for being such a horrid employee. (Which was sad, since I was one of two total in her management.) A lot of my bad behavior had to do with depression, but much of it was from being in my first real job since school and being in my early 20s.

    I didn’t have a kid or a husband relying on me in that situation, but I sure as heck do now. I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that now, and her behavior sounds eerily similar to my own 10 years ago. I wonder if perhaps, some depression may have been a factor in her overall performance. I’m not absolving her, but speaking from other past experiences, even when you know what you have to do to succeed, depression makes it very, very hard to do so. In fact, you want to fail so you have an excuse to feel so crummy all the time.

    All that being said, I’m glad the manager gave her so many tries to keep her job. Not all managers have that much patience and she could have been cast out on her butt without a backward glance. The work world needs many more of that caliber manager.

  13. The OP*

    The OP here. I’d like to thank every one for the wonderful feedback. A few days after the firing we started doing evaluations for the rest of our employees. As I was explaining to a new employee the evaluation scale, I mentioned that you’d need to work hard at getting a “1 or a 2.” (The lowest two points on the scale). It hit me that the employee I fired had worked hard at getting 1’s or 2’s. She did that, not me. It allowed me to put the situation into a larger perspective.

    While I feel bad for the struggle she’s undergoing right now, I don’t feel any sadness on my end.

    1. Ms Enthusiasm*

      Glad to hear you are doing better and the one absurd comment above didn’t get you down. And maybe for some reason your employee wanted to get fired. She probably checked out a long time ago.

  14. crabbles*

    Wow. I was in this situation a month ago, minus the family obligation stuff (my employee was young and lived at home.) I AGONIZED over the decision and spent weeks sick to my stomach. I lost sleep.

    The night it happened, I cried. Since then, I’ve felt nothing but relief and, actually, excitement. We’re interviewing for a replacement, and, hearing that someone is actually EXCITED about the opportunity and EAGER to contribute? It has been so clarifying for me. I expended an enormous amount of energy trying to get the previous person to a really minimal level of performance, and now I see the true possibilities. I’m now a little angry at myself for letting it go one so long (but forgiving myself bc it was my first management experience, period.)

    Alison this site helped me so much through my decision process so thanks for that btw :)

  15. Mike*

    what im seeing more of these days are managers continually letting people go in certain positions over and over again though no fault of their own. they just make up stuff or get the ee to quit just because they dont like the person or they dont want to permanent ly fill the position it to reduce costs.

  16. TJ*

    I was put on a bogus PIP recently and am about to get fired for no other reason except that my boss dislikes me. So firing someone can sometimes actually be the right thing to do, if the employee is being mistreated and wants to get let go so they’re eligible for unemployment benefits.

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