confession: I used to suck at firing people

This post was originally published on March 21, 2008.

I’ve written in the past about how firings should be done — and believe me when I tell you that that’s learned from hard experience. Hard, awful experience. In fact, one of the first times I had to fire someone, I really messed it up — largely because I was oblivious to the advice that I now chant like some sort of weird mantra to other managers. And today I’m going to tell you what happened so you can learn from what I did wrong.

At the time, I was a relatively new manager, and when I took the position, I inherited a problem employee: painfully slow, constantly made mistakes that were seeding the database he worked on with tons of land mines, impervious to help, a general mess. Rather than addressing it straightforwardly with him like one obviously should do, I did what lots of inexperienced managers do: I handled him way too gingerly. I made “suggestions” and expressed concerns, but never did I tell him directly that the problems were so serious that he would be fired if his work didn’t improve. I was vague. I thought I was choosing the kinder option, protecting his feelings, which of course was ridiculous — there’s nothing kind about denying someone the opportunity to know they’re on the path to job loss.

Inevitably, I ended up having to fire him — and because of my vagueness leading up to it, he was genuinely shocked, said he hadn’t seen it coming, even cried. I hadn’t been so kind, it turned out.

And that’s not all. A couple of months later he sued, claiming I had fired him because he had Crohn’s Disease, which would have been a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act if it were true. I was baffled — I knew he’d been fired for poor performance and that the fact that he had a disability was irrelevant (and indeed, we ultimately won the suit). But by not being direct enough about how bad his performance was, I had opened the door to him speculating on what the cause might have been. I could have avoided a months-long legal mess (as well as his legitimate bewilderment) by just getting over my own discomfort and telling him forthrightly the ways in which his performance was unsatisfactory. I put my own comfort ahead of managing well, and as a result, I exposed my company to legal jeopardy and left an employee uncertain about why he was let go.

Years later, I still cringe when I think about how my inexperience and misplaced desire to be nice made me a nightmare manager for that guy. These days, my employees who struggle hear about it — and some of them take the warnings and improve and some of them don’t, but none of them have been surprised by bad news since.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonK*

    I’m really good at firing people, which sucks because I’ve gotten good by lots of practice. Unfortunately, much of that practice was due to non-performance reasons. I’ve fired people for making racial slurs at work, stealing from the company, absenteeism, and for other transgressions that you would fully expect a grown adult to know better. My personal favorite – a 40 year old stood on his desk and started a profanity laden monologue about what he thought about the company, me, and all his coworkers. All because he was mad that he was moved to a cubicle that was away from his buddy in a different department (or so was his excuse to HR). I’m sad to say that I’ve seen some of the most unbelievable behavior imaginable.

    I felt terrible the first time I had to let someone go. It bothered me for a long time. Now, I’m almost robotic as a defense mechanism. I am quick to address issues if they can be rectified. If the problems continue, or are severe enough that immediate action is required (in the case of theft), then I cut the cord and won’t allow myself to feel badly about it.

    1. Chris80*

      Wow, sounds like you’ve had to deal with some really awful situations! Compassion is important when delivering bad news (like firings), but with problems like these, I can see how you would become somewhat “robotic” about it. Obviously, compassion is warranted far more on those who are genuinely trying to succeed (but still falling short) than on those that are unethical or blatantly disregard workplace expectations.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This. Not all situations are equal. Not every employee allows the boss to guide/help them. Sometimes crap happens in a person’s life and for whatever reason it just keeps happening. People do what they can, where they can to help the person.

        What I have found is that it is interesting who accepts the help and who doesn’t. Some of the employees that I really liked were the last ones to accept help- if they accepted help at all. Then there were employees that I wondered “are they going to make it here?” and they were the first people to accept my offers of help. I ended up really liking those folks, too, but for different reasons.

        I just never knew who would respond positively and who wouldn’t. This is why it is so important to try to be fair across the board. No, as a boss you cannot treat everyone the exact same way. But there are overall approaches that you can use regularly. It helps if you react in a predictable and consistent manner.

        I decided, as AnonK is saying, that I would address stuff as it came up. If I let it go, it was just too hard in too many ways. I learned a lot. I would think the problem was X. After talking to the employee sometimes I learned the real problem was Y which was easily fixed.

        Employees do discuss what the boss says and they discuss the boss. Fact of life. However, if the employees feel that most of the time the boss is listening to them, it’s amazing what happens next.

        And yeah, it is necessary for the survival of the business to draw the line. So feeling robotic, or cold or any other description does happen. But part of being a good boss is to make sure people know what they need to do in order to keep their jobs.

        Personally, given the choice of having someone be a good friend to me OR be a good boss to me I would rather they be a good boss. That means I will have food on my table next week, too.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*

          I just never knew who would respond positively and who wouldn’t. This is why it is so important to try to be fair across the board.

          This is so true. Well everything you said but especially that.

          I sucked at people management for a long, long time. I finally got decent when I realized there was no substitute for having a core group of “best practice” principles/actions and not deviating from them.

          This isn’t the same as having a set for rules that must not be broken and it isn’t the same as treating everybody the exactly the same way. I wish I’d figured that out 20 years before I did.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      In a way, you almost have to be impersonal; it’s business. Compassion has its place, but for the desk-stander, nope nope nope. Some people simply aren’t mature enough to act like adults at a job or anywhere else.

    3. Julie*

      Reply to AnonK: It sounds like there might have been some not-so-great hiring happening at your company – to have so many people who need to be fired. I’ll be the first to say that hiring the right person is NOT easy, but I’ve learned a lot from good and bad hiring experiences, as well as from the AAM blog.

      1. Julie*

        I’m curious – do you know why there were so many people who needed to be fired? I don’t think you can predict when someone is going to steal or lose it and get up on a desk, but those things seem kind of extreme, so that’s why I was wondering if something unusual was going on.

  2. Ann Furthermore*

    I’ve only had to fire someone once (I’m not in a management role anymore). It was awful. The employee’s father had died suddenly, and then his grandfather died a few weeks later. His mother had never worked outside the home, and had no idea about any of their finances, not even what bank they used. He had to step into his dad’s shoes, basically, and take care of everything: settling the estate, selling his dad’s business, and all those other little details.

    Then one day a few months later he had a grand-mal seizure at work, and after that he went into a complete tailspin. He was missing deadlines, meetings, not answering emails, and eventually only showing up at work occasionally but saying he was working from home. My boss and I gave him quite a bit of latitude, due to the mitigating circumstances, but finally we had to put him onto a PIP, where I begged him to use his FMLA and take care of himself and his family, and his job would be waiting for him when he came back. He was either unable or unwilling to do that, and eventually we had no choice but to fire him.

    It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do, work-wise. I just felt like I was kicking him when he was down. But there was really no other choice. For a long time I used that as a measuring stick against other unpleasant things I was dreading, telling myself, “Well, no matter how bad this is, it won’t be as bad as what I had to do to [employee.]” Then, a couple years later, the poor man had a heart attack and died. So I don’t compare anything to that situation anymore, because it would just seem callous and disrespectful.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Oh Ann, that’s awful. I have had bad firings but never anything that awful. I’m sorry.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        Thanks. It wasn’t this particular situation that chased me out of management, it was other things. But I will say that not having to deal with stuff like this anymore was an appeal of an individual contributor role.

        That poor guy was very unhappy and troubled. I hope wherever he is now, he’s found some peace.

        1. Ruffingit*

          You did everything you could to help the man so you can feel good about that. You can’t help someone more than they’re willing to help themselves. I’m sorry you went through that.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      This is awful. I think that you tried your absolute best and the enormity of his problems was just overwhelming. It probably would have taken 10-15 people to help him through all that. (Various professionals, friends, family and perhaps a minister/priest/rabbi type of person.) Unfortunately bosses are limited to the issues at work. You (and your group) did what you could to mitigate that and still came up empty.
      But I think that most people would feel overwhelmed and consumed if these things happened to them– just the way the man in your story felt overwhelmed. At least you guys gave a crap. I would like to think that he noticed that.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        I felt terrible about it. My husband, who runs a small business and has gained experience over the years with having to fire people, told me to quit feeling guilty, because we’d done everything we could think of to help him, and he did not accept the hand that was reached out to him.

        He was right, of course, but it was still just a crappy situation. Firing someone is never easy, but if it’s due to poor performance or other things like standing on your desk yelling like in AnonK’s example (and by the way…about that…OMG and WTF) then that person brought it on him/herself. Then, I would think , that even though it’s still an unpleasant thing to do, it’s easier to not get emotional about it.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        I know. I never could understand why he wouldn’t use it, it was job-protected leave. He had to be the rock for his mom after his father died, so having some breathing room from work would have helped. But it’s hard for some people to admit that they can’t handle everything on their own.

        In addition to all that, we suspected that he developed a problem with alcohol. I never found out for sure, but it happened pretty suddenly so I think it was something he’d struggled with in the past, gotten under control, and was triggered again by all the turmoil in his personal life.

    3. KH*

      I am dealing with almost the exact situation. My subordinate is caring for two extremely sick parents and going through a divorce. Our corporate culture values work/life balance, but we gave him a little too much leeway. Internal customers began complaining. To top it off, he was never more than an average employee but not to the point of even considering letting him go. We’d discuss improvement areas and get on with things.
      He made a couple mistakes at an inopportune time after a lot of good will was burned up dealing with his family issues.
      I feel terrible for him. He was an 11 year veteran. He’s going to lose his house to settle the divorce. He’s basically losing everything.
      The one good thing, he still respects me as his boss even though I was the one who had to break the bad news and deal with the transition.
      It’s true – business is business. Sometimes thinking otherwise makes things worse.

  3. managing is mentoring*

    And yet….I am in the middle of pip with simultaneous union grievance. The employee who had received satisfactory reviews for six years and perhaps believed that she would be promoted (delusional as this position required a masters degree) to my position, has spent the last year doing anything but the tasks of her position. I have twenty years in public service and retail management. I have had to let people go, I have been let go for poor performance. I get extenuating circumstances, new management, inept training, being in over your head. This individual told me to my face with no irony or understanding that they -“upper management” expected her to train the new manager (me) that wasn’t her job. (I expect that was why she answered any question about department procedures with “how the hell do I know” or incorrect information “when are time cards due?” Wednesday- they were due Monday. I have been documenting lateness, incomplete tasks, rude behavior to customer.
    In the last three months there has been little improvement.
    Although I have empathy, I am also weary.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      She either believes she can’t be fired or believes that being fired is inevitable and wants to go down in a blaze of glory.

      I had another (failing, unprofitable) division folded into mine in mid 2013. I was pressured by PTB to cut payroll of the other division employees immediately, but I refused. I said I’m keeping everybody for at least 6 months, absorbing them into my books and figuring out if I can save everybody’s jobs before I start laying people off.

      (It was only 10 stand alone unshared employees. I can figure out how to pay for 10 people long enough to sort profitability, right?)

      One of them didn’t last two months. Her hostility toward me was palpable. She refused to believe she now reported in my chain (even though the head of the previous chain had been let go, and even though her direct boss counseled her on this multi times). She refused to cooperate with changes, “that’s not the way we do it”, even though the old way obviously wasn’t working see: failing & unprofitable. She refused to deliver things I needed, telling me what I asked for would be days away while she visibly worked on fill in work with no time deadline. The kicker was, after I brought a mistake to her attention and asked her to correct it, the kicker was her then smiling, throwing her hands in the air and saying “well, sometimes I wear my glasses, sometimes I don’t”.

      And…we laid her off the next morning. Bonus: got PTB off my back for salary cuts as they weren’t very happy with me that I didn’t deliver instant savings.

      Here’s the thing. When we laid her off she looked me right in the eye and said, “I’ve known the whole time this was going to happen”.

      Talk about your self fulfilling prophecies!

      Long way of saying that your employee may well be of the same mindset and personally, I wouldn’t have a solution except giving him or her what she believes is going to happen next (and is working hard to make happen).

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Another clear example of how we really do bring on our own fate. How sad.
        And it sounds like if she just went into your office and said “how do I help YOU to help ME?” This whole story would have been different.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*

          God bless, all I needed to start was just don’t be openly hostile, which is why “managing is mentoring”‘s post brought the story to my mind.

      2. Ann Furthermore*

        Well, I hope that the other 9 people appreciate that you’re trying to save their jobs. Some people are just so wrapped up in their own crap that they can’t recognize someone who is trying to help them.

        Maybe she wanted to get laid off because she wanted the severance. But still, it’s just ridiculous to behave that way, because now she’s burned her bridges. Had she come just come to you and said, “Hey, I know you’ll probably need to lay some people off, so I’ll volunteer to volunteer to be on the list,” she could have walked away with her severance AND a good reference.

        Or maybe she was just delusional and bat-scat crazy.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*

          Oh, it’s 6 months later, jobs saved. I was pretty sure I could do it to start, it was just logistics. My division sells industrial teapots in quantity to businesses. The other division sold china teapot services to individuals. I just had to figure out how to sell off the huge china teapot inventory, bump up the industrial teapot sales and integrate a new line of industrial china tea services to maximize synergy.

          Everybody else was fabulous. There’s no reason for them to be grateful. They are the ones who made me look good.

          No idea what this employee’s actual issue was, going with bat scat, thanks for that.

          1. Ann Furthermore*

            Very nicely done. It’s nice to hear about people who put the extra effort into saving people’s jobs, rather than just going for the knee-jerk reaction of just laying people off. And good for you for pushing back on your management, and proving that your way was the right way.

            A few years ago, things were very slow at my husband’s company. He runs a very small company, and they only have 5 to 7 people working for them at any given time. So he thought about it, and got everyone together and said that for the foreseeable future, they were cutting back to a 32 hour work week. Everyone would be making a little less, but everyone would also still have a job. The other alternative was for him to let one person go. The guys all agreed that letting everyone keep their jobs was the better alternative. And after about 6 months, things picked back up, and they were back to 40 hours.

            1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*

              This is excellent. And it’s not just because keeping people working is the right thing to do, it’s also often the right business decision. You can sell off or downgrade physical assets, or move into a smaller business space during a down turn…thing turn up, poof, just get a better space back. Replacing and retraining people is hard. You can’t recover easily if you’ve skeleton staffed yourself.

              The other excellent thing your husband did was identify that he couldn’t afford to keep all bodies at full hours at that time. He identified that before he ran himself out of cash and crashed his business. And then on top of that, he gave his employees the choice about cutting hours.

              So you have married a brilliant and kind man, ‘grats. :)

              I’m not being humble when saying this wasn’t that hard for me. The biggest challenge was that I had no notice. They let the other guy go and 10 minutes later dropped the roll into my division in my lap. So the stopwatch had started before I even took my place at the runner’s block.

              Because I am old I have learned that one of the most useful pieces of business advice ever was given by Douglas Adams, may he rest in peace: DON’T PANIC.
              I had to move swiftly but I wasn’t going to make any non-reversible changes until I’d assimilated all the information I needed to.

              After that, I made a plan, and after that it was the rest of everybody else who made it happen. How many horror stories could have come out of taking marketing/product development from one team, folding them into another, and asking for a very fast combined product development? A million right? Only I’ve none because they all just worked together and did it.

              Telling the former right hand to the head of this former division that his chief job now is dismantling and selling off the inventory (that he’d spent five years of his life working on) should have left blood spatter everywhere only it didn’t. He’s been great. We have a running “how LOW can we GO” joke between us.

              If your husband’s employees had been jerks, his story would have an entirely different outcome. Plans are only as good as the people who execute them.

              1. Ann Furthermore*

                That’s very true. My husband is lucky that he’s got a good group of people working for him. His biggest struggle is that they never have more than about 4-6 weeks of work in their pipeline. Most companies use the just-in-time methodology, to avoid wrapping up too much money in inventory. So, even when things are really busy, there’s no guarantee that it will last.

                So he struggles with hiring decisions because he never knows how long he’ll be able to keep someone. He hired a guy a couple years ago, and was very clear that it would likely be a temporary job that depended on how much work kept coming in. The guy did a great job, but then the work slowed down and my husband had to let him go — last in, first out. He understood, but he was really upset, and my husband was too — it’s one thing to get rid of someone who’s not doing their job (like only wearing their glasses sometimes) but it’s just a huge drag when you have to let someone go who’s doing a good job.

                And you’re being too modest — yes, your team has made you successful, but a big part of that is because they know you’re a good manager who wants to do the right thing, not just the easy thing.

      3. Poe*

        I’m sorry, but “well, sometimes I wear my glasses, sometimes I don’t” just cracked me up. I am definitely going to say that to someone at work next week (not when I do anything horrible, but maybe when I load the dishwasher poorly or something). I love it.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*

          I know, right?

          It is the most awesome thing ever said to me in the workplace. I’d love to know what my face looked like when she said it. I am pretty sure it was blank because I was saying to myself “show nothing, show nothing, show nothing”.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*


            I buried the lead on that line. Her job was quality control.


    2. Julie*

      Being rude to a customer or client is NOT OK. The only time I had to fire someone was when she stood up a client because she was taking care of some personal business (and when I asked her about it, her attitude was that I should understand that what she was doing was really important and of course her lunch break had to go an extra hour over). There were many other things she did that were going to lead to her being fired if she didn’t make changes, but just not showing up for a scheduled training session with a client was the last straw.

  4. The Other Dawn*

    This is timely as I’m interviewing tomorrow for a position that will manage 6 people. In the early years of my last job I managed 5 tellers, but the branch manager was the one to do the hiring and firing. For the last 5 years I only managed 2, but basically did the whole employee management thing. I’ve never had to fire anyone, yet. I’ve made the decision to fire (business failed so it never came to fruition) and had input into the decision to fire, though.

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd*

          I prefer the visual of two people in rolls. It’s funnier, so we’ll go with that one. :p

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Most of it, probably. Giving feedback, or at least giving feedback in a non-awkward way, was a huge one.

      I learned mainly by doing it wrong and seeing what happened when I did (and by watching others do it wrong), and then learning those lessons and resolving to do it better. It still takes time though — you can figure it out intellectually but then struggle to actually execute it well. I mean, it’s one thing to know that you need to have a direct performance conversation with someone without sugarcoating but while still being kind, and it’s another to have it actually go the way you envision it in your head.

      That’s why I always say that it takes a while to learn to manage. You can’t walk into it and be good. Or at least I’ve never seen anyone pull that off.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I can see that. Because you can know exactly what to say and how to say it, but there is no way to predict how people will react. That could throw you for a loop really fast, I would think.

  5. Anon*

    This story sounds familiar to me. As a newish manager, I had an employee that, similarly, wasn’t performing well. Prior manager had always given “meets expectations” ratings in the performance review, even though it wasn’t true. I thought I was being clear – I gave consistent, clear feedback about errors being made and that performance wasn’t up to standard. I met with employee regularly to discuss ways to improve performance up to a “satisfactory” rating. Formal performance review specifically stated “fails to meet standard” in multiple categories – and he agreed with this assessment. Yet, when I put him on PIP (right after performance review), he was surprised. I guess he never equated “fails to meet standard” with “job is in jeopardy”. From this I learned you must be very, very, very clear about the ramifications of poor performance. What seems obvious to me just isn’t obvious to everyone else.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Could be that since the former manager gave him meets expectations ratings regardless, he thought it wasn’t any big deal to not be meeting the standards. Could also be that former manager would have the same sorts of talks with him, but then never pull the trigger in terms of making it a formal thing by putting him on a PIP and therefore he once again thought that wouldn’t happen. Still, good for you for actually managing this guy. I hope being on the PIP opened his eyes to “Not every manager is going to let you get away with this crap.”

  6. Hugo*

    I always had the mindset that “I am not firing this person – he fired himself.” Maybe I was lucky, but all the firings I’ve had to do were for pretty clear-cut procedural violations or repeated performance issues that had been previously documented.

    I think layoffs are much harder because in those instances, you may actually be letting go of a good worker and it’s hard to separate emotion from something like that.

  7. Ms Cello*

    Ok, here is a “want to fire” and also a AAM question: I was put on a PIP at my all time favorite job. I had a fantastic manager who left the company and I inherited an insecure manager who felt threatened. I had watched him push out another long term project manager who was very good at what he did, and I recognized the behavior. This manager and his manager and HR decided that I had to go. I went from have a great review, customers loved me, most of my coworkers were good except for the “teachers pet” sales guy. He didn’t like me. So out of the blue, I’m on a PIP for things like sitting with my back to people in a meeting and other random petty things. Nothing specific. If I need to see the overhead and we are sitting around a table, I have to turn my chair, as do others.
    I’m not going to go in to all the details unless someone wants to know privately but I hired an attorney because I had a male colleague in the same role, same customers same everything who would routinely show up drunk at customer sites, informed me how fat I was at company events and was beyond unreliable yet was still employed. I didn’t want to do this but the choices were to lose the job I loved by being fired or call foul. So those of you who have fired people, thoughts please? Because I’ve also been through the massive layoffs of the early and mid 2000’s (remember, 15k people at a time?) and while the comments here put some humanity back in to the title manager, I know that many a manager has no qualms about firing people and going home and sleeping well.

  8. Ms Cello*

    Would it be possible to have some feedback to my questions? I am asking out of curiosity and also in looking for warning signs between vindictiveness and business necessity.
    Thank you

  9. Grace*

    @Ms. Cello: I realize it’s several months after your posts, but your work environment sounded like a pretty toxic environment, poor management, poorly selected managers and training and the like. I have gotten comfort from reading books such as Christine Pearson and Christine Porath’s book The Cost of Bad Behavior (you can also see Chris Pearson on youtube) and Bob Sutton’s book (and website) The No A**Hole Rule. Take care.

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