do you feel guilty when you have 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, giving clear warnings about the problem, and giving praise when I saw a job well done. I really wanted my employee to succeed. I knew that she was the sole provider for her family and her son is very young.

I feel that the firing was just, and quite frankly, the right thing to do. Her performance was starting to affect her coworkers. We 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.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 138 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    In complete agreement with Alison’s response. The more you’re dealing with a nice person who was trying and just isn’t up to snuff, the harder it is — not that I feel great about having to fire someone with an attitude problem, either.

    Thankfully I haven’t had to do it in a while — having had to fire people has made me much more careful about making good hires!

      1. Rebeck*

        Either way, really. One is able to read the answer there (but not here), but one is also permitted to read it, albeit only via the link. :-)

  2. fposte*

    The video below is really worth watching, too–the CEO of Gilt talks about the effect on other employees when managers fail to take action. It’s not just about this employee.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Exactly. Ultimately the company is the sum of its employees, and the other employees were probably resentful of having to pick up the slack for someone who disrespected and disregarded them by creating said slack in the first place.

      1. Nashira*

        The frustration of the other employees can become really, really toxic in and of itself. There’s a situation in my office with someone who ought to be fired, but won’t be for a while because Reasons. There’s a group of people on the hunt for the slightest misstep on this person’s part, in the hopes of expediting the firing, and I honestly find it more difficult to deal with them than to handle the problem child’s slack and attitude.

        I wish problem child was gone too, but I’d also really appreciate if the cabal would get spoken to about making a tense situation worse.

      2. an evening of fun in the metropolis of your dream*

        > the other employees were probably resentful of having to pick
        > up the slack for someone

        I know that this is a commonly held belief, but I am not sure that it is always true. I can envision a business where low performers are kept on (and expected to perform to a lower standard in what is basically a dead-end job with no hope of promotion and infrequent and minimal cost-of-living pay raises), while the hard workers and high performers are promoted upwards and outwards.

        Resentment would tend to come into play in a situation where hard workers and high performers aren’t rewarded and / or aren’t given an upward path in the organization.

        I understand that keeping low-performers on as ‘charity’ is not good for a business’s bottom line. But I question whether co-workers would actually resent low-performers as long as high-performers are rewarded.

        To put it another way, it’s not simply a matter of high-performers resenting the extra work they feel they must do. It’s a matter of high-performers not being rewarded for their extra / better work output.

        This leads me to ponder an “evil” business model, where management retains poor performers and artificially limits rewards to high performers, thus stoking the fires of resentment towards the low-performers. Every so often, management performs a careful strategic promotion, raise, or firing, which eases discontent and also makes management look like the Good Guys.

        Wow, what’s in this stuff?

    2. Lily in NYC*

      I’m always a little disturbed by how easily my best friend handles firing people. She doesn’t care at all and doesn’t ever get remotely bummed out by it. The one time I had to fire someone, I was up the entire night beforehand, and felt sick to my stomach until the actual firing. I think my friend might be a sociopath!

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I have no idea how my comment ended up here, I thought I was starting a new thread, sorry.

      2. Dovahkiin*

        Meh, or she can separate the business and personal. One of my good friends is an efficiency expert – she fires people a lot. She can see the big picture really well and understands how to move organizations/companies forward. She’s pragmatic and not extremely sentimental (except when it comes to her v. cute dog who is the love and joy of her life haha).

        Sociopath? No. Some people just have different skill sets. That’s like saying, “my best friend works in sales, so she must be manipulative or a liar.” Nahhh.

  3. MR*

    I agree with Alison. Before I read her response, I felt as though you dragged it out too long. Multiple no call-no shows? Two PIPs? That’s when it kills morale for coworkers.

    It sucks to fire people. It always does. But it sucks more when the process is dragged out much longer than necessary.

    1. Ed*

      I’ve never understood why anyone gets any slack for no call/no shows. I can at least get my head around people constantly being late or taking fake last minute sick days but simply not showing up is the ultimate sign of disrespect. It’s basically saying “screw your company and screw my co-workers”.

      1. Jessa*

        Yeh, the only reasonable slack for no call/no show is “I live alone and got in an accident and was unconscious in hospital.” Seriously. And honestly, in my wallet I have my emergency info (allergies, insurance info, doctor’s names, OH and my employer and contact number.) So hopefully if it was a weekday and I got in an accident someone might be able to notify anyway.

        Unless some very rare thing happened, it’s just not on to notify your boss if you won’t be there.

        1. Rebeck*

          How about when the boss mis-transcribes the email address and never bothers to check with the person who collected the emails to begin with, and the employee never received the roster? We had that once.

  4. Adam*

    I’m a firm believer in second chances. Whether big or small we all get one at some point. So as I read the OP’s letter it sounds to me like this employer gave her plenty of chances and clear direction to boot.

    She has to meet you halfway on this stuff. There is the possibility of unrecognized health/emotional issues that may have been impeding her ability to her job, but nothing here indicates that was the case and if she doesn’t bring those things up you can’t help her address them.

    Really it sounds like her responsibilities as a family breadwinner didn’t weigh on her heavily enough to make her want to work harder and improve. Hopefully this firing will be the fire lit underneath her to get her act together and do better at the next job she takes.

    It’s ok to feel sympathy for her situation, but you did not cause that. You can still feel empathy for her at the same time you let yourself off the guilt bus.

    1. maggie*

      Thank you for this. I had to let someone go a couple of years ago that was a treasure to the office, but made a grave mistake that couldn’t be rectified by a simple PIP. Even though I know it was for the best, I have always felt personally responsible for what her life turned into, when really she made the adult decision that ended her time with us. I really needed this little pep talk and I didn’t even realize it until I read it.

      1. Adam*

        Glad I could help. I imagine having to let people go is in the top 5 worst things about being a manager. A one-and-done firing offense must be especially hard with an employee who otherwise is great, but if their action was seriously that bad to necessitate immediate termination I’d like to think there had to have been a little voice on her shoulder telling her it wasn’t a good idea before she did it. Fortunately, I think those occurrences are less common than the employee you can give time and resources to improve and avoid the severe consequences.

  5. Ann O'Nemity*

    I recently ran into one of our previous employees who was fired by my boss last year. She has been unable to find another job and has fallen on very hard times. I feel horrible.

    1. Jessa*

      Yeh, that kind of thing stinks, and yes, the total guilts, but unless your boss is an idiot, I can’t see them having fired the person for no reason.

  6. Celeste*

    In the long run it’s a kindness to let people go when they’re trying but just can’t get it to work. It shows they need a better fit, because how happy can you be when you can’t do anything right? As for the ones who choose not to get it together, I say firing is the natural consequence.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      There’s a good book about managing – “Great Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success.” There’s a chapter in there about de-hiring employees who are simply not a fit for the job they’ve accepted. I have that issue now. I don’t have the power to fire him, but the job he’s accepted isn’t the best fit for his skills.

        1. C Average*

          Lord, I hope not. I had exactly the same thought. There’s no way I could say this word out loud with a straight face.

  7. Ed*

    After having the same guilty feeling as OP a long time ago, I added an additional step for myself when an employee was getting close to termination. In addition to the standard warnings, documentation and improvement plans, I now look the person directly in the eyes and say something like “If you fail to meet this last step in the improvement plan, you are going to be terminated without notice. Please understand that the next time we meet it will be to discuss your improvement or to walk you out the door.” This isn’t to cover my butt or avoid a lawsuit but to allow me to sleep at night if I have to fire them. I’ve seen a number of terminations over the years where, even though their poor performance was well known (and sometimes even legendary), the employee was honestly shocked when they were let go.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, that’s an important thing to do for a lot of reasons, I think, and yours is a good one. That’s also a good reason for asking the employee to state back to you her understanding of what’s been said, so she herself has said that she knows she will lose her job if she can’t make the improvements.

      1. Ed*

        I also think about my ex-manager who stretched his budget to buy a nice home and was laid off a month later. I realize lay offs usually need to be secretive but that really put him in a bind. Nobody forced him to buy an expensive house but he was assuming his 10+ year job was safe. I figure an employee can at least avoid new financial obligations or maybe take another job that they would normally turn down if they know exactly how bad things are.

        1. SherryD*

          Ideally, people would make major purchases with enough of a financial safety net that they wouldn’t be screwed if they lost their job. However, I realize that won’t always happen in reality.

          I agree, though, if a lay-off or firing is seeming like a real possibility, the decent thing is to let the employee know. When possible.

    2. Jen S. 2.0*

      Agree with this. If your management is decent, it should not be a surprise when you are fired. Either A) you’ve been told your [issue] needs to improve by X date, your job is in danger, and termination is likely if you don’t fix the problem; or B) you’ve done something totally egregious and firing should be a foregone conclusion if you get caught. If termination is on the table, you shouldn’t be hinting around at that point.

      1. BRR*

        That is what happened to me and it sucked. I had one brief, friendly talk which I took as I was doing a great job but fix this one little thing. They meant fix this thing or you’re fired. Sure would have been nice for them to be clear on that. Then while getting heaps of praised I was asked to go to HR’s office.

      2. NJ Anon*

        Not always. I was hired and was overqualified. I did my job and then some but at the end of the day my boss could not justify my salary. I was still surprised when it happened even though I understood. It still sucked.

        1. TCO*

          That sounds more like a layoff than a firing, though. Sometimes layoffs have to be more secretive or sudden, though it’s not always ideal.

    3. Adam*

      I agree that a firing should never be a straight up surprise, unless the employee does something so outlandishly egregious in one particular moment that there really is no other form of recourse. While I’ve never been a position of letting people go, in my experience most people can already tell if they’re performance is not up to snuff. Whether or not they care is a whole other issue. But either way many people can feel like “It won’t happen to me” so at some point they need to be told their job is on the line if things do not change.

    4. Ann Furthermore*

      I think that’s a good way to both give yourself piece of mind, and also make sure that the employee absolutely understands the gravity of the situation.

      I had to fire someone once, and it really was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do (I’ve written about it here before). But during his PIP meeting, I first literally begged him to use FMLA (he was having some very serious personal issues), but he refused. Then I told him that if he did not fulfill the conditions of the PIP, further action would be taken, which would most likely be termination. I also told him I really did not want to have to do that, but the situation was serious enough to make that a real possibility. I still felt like crap when I had to fire him, but I never doubted that he understood that his job was in jeopardy.

    5. Jessa*

      This is awesome. A lot of employees just do not hear the part about “we are really, honestly, absolutely, going to fire you, if x doesn’t happen in y time. Really, really, truly, really.” They just do not believe it. And then you get them freaking out when you fire them.

  8. C Average*

    I have never had firing authority over anyone, so I can’t speak from that side.

    Here’s what I can tell you: The thoughts that go through the mind of the non-problem employees in this scenario. During my years in the retail environment, I’d see stuff like the behavior of the problem employee and I’d think, “Good grief. I come in early, I pick up shifts for other people, I bring my A game every day, and my manager appears to value me as much as this person who doesn’t even bother to SHOW UP. How is this possible? Am I being played for a sucker, doing much better work than anyone expects a person to do in this role? Does Problem Employee have naked photographs of the boss? Why does this continue? And why do we both continue to earn the same salary and continue to hold a job when I am actually doing the job and Problem Employee is not?”

    In short, letting something like this go on creates a lot of cognitive dissonance for other employees.

    And, while I’m an adherent of a stay-in-your-lane philosophy, in at least some environments (mainly retail), one person’s no-call-no-show equals another person’s pressured-to-pick-up-a-shift-on-scheduled-day-off. Which sucks. When you’re downstream of the Problem Employee, she becomes your problem, not just the business’s.

    1. De Minimis*

      One of my previous jobs had a schedule where both Saturday and Sunday were regular workdays. It was always disheartening to see the same people absent every weekend. It was a union workplace and I guess the people involved had a way to always be gone without getting in trouble, but it was very bad for morale for the rest of us who showed up when we were supposed to, and I can’t imagine why a workplace with fewer restrictions would put up with it, it really creates a toxic environment.

    2. BRR*

      My husband is working retail and I feel like it takes a lot to get fired. At least at his place of employment.

      1. Stephanie*

        Ah, interesting. The retail environments I’ve worked in, it’s been the exact opposite, especially if it’s a no call/no show (that isn’t due to something catastrophic).

        1. BRR*

          They operate on a point system. You gain for just showing up on time and lose for calling out and lose even more for no call/no show (when it’s not an emergency. The only people he’s seen get fired were those who were stealing and got caught and those who ran out of points.

        2. Big Tom*

          In the retail places I’ve worked at, it totally depended on the manager, just like any other place. Some would drop you for a no call/no show and some would let it slide because it seemed like more work for them to fire you and hire someone, etc. Or they wanted to be understanding and so on. Plenty of bosses would not hesitate in the slightest though.

          Except where there was a union. Not to start anything with union supporters, but MAN was it hard to get rid of people at that place, even when they were practically begging for it.

    3. some1*

      I think it’s worse for the coworkers in any kind of shift work or positions where someone needs to do your work when you are out.

        1. De Minimis*

          Yeah that was the case at the job I mentioned…graveyard shift.

          The workload was usually slow on Saturday nights, but it was still frustrating to see this one guy ALWAYS gone. They had eliminated the regular day shift, which had been the most desirable one for most people since it was basically a normal work schedule. People would work for 15-20 years to get enough seniority to gain a spot on the day shift. Then it was shut down, and all of us on the other two shifts had to take on all these unhappy people…this guy was one of them. He didn’t actually have a lot of seniority but I guess he came up with some kind of way to work things out in his favor.

          He eventually ended up leaving to work at another type of facility that had more traditional hours but involved heavy customer service, which most of us wanted to avoid at all costs.

    4. Isabelle*

      “Good grief. I come in early, I pick up shifts for other people, I bring my A game every day, and my manager appears to value me as much as this person who doesn’t even bother to SHOW UP. How is this possible? Am I being played for a sucker, doing much better work than anyone expects a person to do in this role? Does Problem Employee have naked photographs of the boss? Why does this continue? And why do we both continue to earn the same salary and continue to hold a job when I am actually doing the job and Problem Employee is not?”

      yes to all of this and also add the feeling that you are earning part of that person’s paycheck for them, which is another slap in the face

    5. Stephanie*

      I think, too, keeping the problem person on might drag down the performance of your team. If other people see that Suzy can get away showing up late/calling out with no notice/not filling out the TPS reports properly without any consequence, then what incentive do they have to do all that? Good work ethic will only go so far…

    6. Elizabeth West*

      Been there–I had to get up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion to cover a factory cafeteria shift for a coworker who just did not show up. My manager found out when the shift boss at the factory called her and told her the cafeteria was shut. One night, I had worked all day and been asleep for an HOUR when this happened. After the second (or third time–I don’t recall), she let him go.

      It’s no fun trying to assemble a salad bar when customers are coming in and taking stuff off it. And industrial convection ovens that cook food really fast are AWESOME.

    7. Dynamic Beige*

      “Does Problem Employee have naked photographs of the boss?”

      I have wondered on more than one occasion if certain individuals had photos of their bosses having sex with goats or something… usually these individuals weren’t coworkers, but further up the chain. “How does Wakeen get that client/project every year? I just don’t get it. It must be goat sex pictures.”

    8. MsChanandlerBong*

      I used to have the same thoughts. It turned out some of my co-workers DID have naked pics of the boss. He’d been getting naked in the manager’s office and “camming” with teenage girls while he was supposed to be working. He was terminated as soon as it came out.


      1. Sarahnova*

        It’s Wednesday for me, so this is officially my “WTF Wednesday” moment. Just when you think you’ve heard it all!

    9. Ann Furthermore*

      On a related note, just as frustrating is seeing people do stupid things that cause serious issues and not be held accountable for them.

      I’m currently working on a project where the latest testing event has been delayed by 3 weeks. The key person on the user side took 2 weeks off and did not complete the required prep work that we (the IT team) needed in order to be ready for the testing to start on time. Despite being told numerous times that this was critical to the success of the testing (and the project overall) she ignored the deadline until the night before the due date and then of course was unable to complete it. And then whined about how much work would be involved in getting it done. Yes, it is a lot of work. That’s why I gave you 3 weeks to get it done. Not my problem that you chose to take vacation instead.

      Except, now, it is my problem. I will have 3 weeks of travel in the month of April. And no one on the user side seems to have any clue or idea about what a colossally bad error that was.

      And what really pisses me off is that if I did something that caused a 3 week delay, and put the entire project at risk, my boss would have my head. And rightfully so. But no one is being held accountable this truly egregious screw-up. I’ve voiced my opinion to my boss and PM, but beyond that there’s really nothing I can do except suck it up. I’m still very angry about it, and quite honestly, the users have seriously damaged their relationship with me, since this was just the last in a very long line of missed deadlines, poor time management, and bad decision making.

    10. BananaPants*

      I’m not in a retail environment but have had an extraordinarily lazy coworker on my team for the last 7 years. No lie, the guy spends his workdays at his desk openly moonlighting for his other job or surfing the internet/playing fantasy sports teams. Routine tasks assigned to him just don’t get done. When senior management does directly assign a task to him, he either half-asses it or he searches our network drive for another engineer’s work, tweaks it, and puts his own name on it (over the years several of us have resorted to saving everything as a PDF or keeping it on our local drive until finished and ready to distribute). Our management has let this slide for so long with no apparent repercussions that some of us on the team darkly joke that he must have VERY incriminating photos of some executive.

      It’s extremely disheartening to come into work every day knowing that I can’t count on him doing his part of the work, that he’ll appropriate my work as his own, and in the end he gets paid $50K+ per year more than I do.

  9. AnonAcademic*

    I will provide a different perspective – getting fired was a pivotal point in my career, in a positive way. I got fired under pretty unfair circumstances from my first job after college – part of it was my manager scapegoating me for her nonsense, but part of it was that it was not the right environment for me (amongst other things, I was responsible for drawing and processing blood samples – ick). But, getting fired got me out of what was clearly a toxic environment. And the job I got next was one where I found my first major professional mentor – who I still collaborate with now, 8 years later (we just had a conference call this morning!).

    1. Ed*

      Same here. I was fired early in my career and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was in the wrong environment and was unhappy but the pay was good so I probably would have stayed forever. I wasn’t necessarily on board that I should leave at the time but we mutually agreed it was not the right job for me. They handled the whole thing very nicely and allowed me to leave quietly with a neutral reference and some severance pay. The HR manager even reviewed my resume for me. I think it is to everyone’s benefit for terminated employees to be successful somewhere else.

    2. Stephanie*

      Yeah, I was fired from a field and job I hated and it was the major kick in the pants to change paths.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Same here–and the main reason I was under-performing was a serious depressive episode. I tried, but I simply could not get back on track fast enough to suit the employer. (Plus, it sucked; I didn’t like the job anymore by that point anyway.) I needed to get out of there and recover, and I’m glad they booted me.

    3. Jen S. 2.0*

      Thirded. I was fired from my first “real” job out of college after 5 months, mostly for sucking at it (1998). I was an admin/research assistant. I was terrible at the job from day one, I had been warned that my work wasn’t up to snuff, and I was already looking for something new when I was let go for making a big, fat, last-straw mistake. This wasn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things. I hated the job and was unhappy, so although my pride was a little bruised, I wasn’t sad to leave. I temped for a few weeks until I found a great new job.

      Note: I took 2 big lessons from this. 1) I am not a good admin. I should not accept a job with “assistant” in the title unless it’s “assistant vice president.” (Not “assistant TO THE vice president.”) 2) You don’t have to stay in a job if
      you are miserable. Tie up your loose ends and find something new. I liked my new job so much that I couldn’t figure out why I had stayed at the old place for so long!

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        I also sucked wind at my first post-college job. They didn’t fire me, but my first review was an eye-opener. I left after something like 8 months and was SHOCKED when, once I hated my next job even more, they wouldn’t even reply to my “wanna hire me back?” email.

        It took a couple of years before those lessons really set in, and I wonder whether I would have learned faster if they’d fired me!

    4. Dan*

      Every time I’ve moved on from a job (voluntary or otherwise), I’ve moved on to something bigger or better.

      Since there is a new adage in the US work place (“in order to move up, you have to move out”) I just assume that when someone gives me my walking papers, I can now do the moving up that I was too chicken to do before.

    5. MsChanandlerBong*

      Sometimes being fired is a blessing in disguise. I mentioned in a previous open thread that I was hired as an HR assistant at a rate of $11.25 an hour. I was supposed to process new hire paperwork and do other clerical tasks. It turns out the HR director had quit two months earlier. When I arrived on my first day, there were two months’ worth of unopened mail on my desk, some of which contained past-due notice for company health insurance premiums, legal notices that should have been reviewed, etc. They had me doing the work of an HR manager for less than $12 an hour, not to mention I had nowhere close to the amount of experience required to do the job. I screwed up in spectacular ways and ended up getting fired two months in. Turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

    6. Ann Furthermore*

      Yep, I got fired once too. The big lesson I learned was to never take a job if you don’t get the good “warm fuzzy” feeling in the interview. I didn’t get it with this job, but I took it anyway because my current job was being relocated to TX (due to an acquisition), and because it was a pay increase of about 50%. I lasted 6 miserable months. I’d been planning to stick it out for a year, since I’d gotten the job through a professional acquaintance, but I really hated it.

      Then the company was acquired by a larger corporation, and they also acquired another similar company in the same city. This created some “redundancy” and they took the opportunity to get rid of me. And I was happy for it.

      Ever since, I’ve used the “warm fuzzy” approach to accepting new positions, and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. Of course, you don’t always have the luxury of being able to do that. Sometimes you just need a job so you can start earning some money, warm fuzzy feelings or not. But I’m very fortunate to have not ever been in that position.

      1. Sarahnova*


        When I was job hunting last year, there were some jobs which were great on paper but my gut said, “eh”, or in one case “ick”, for no reason I could put my finger on.

        Then I started talking to another company, right after finding I was pregnant, that was a lengthy commute away, and had the warm fuzzies/feeling of “click” from the start. I remember saying to my husband, “It’s crazy to be thinking about accepting a job this far away when I’m pregnant, but I just really WANT to”. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.

    7. must remain anon*

      I was fired from a retail job when I was about 20. I had made a series of bad life decisions over the previous couple of years, and the last was a very bad decision that resulted in me being fired. Ultimately, it ended up being a good thing because it caused me to take a long, hard look at the road my life was headed down, and decide to make significant changes.

  10. Xarcady*

    Back when I was teaching, I had to fail some students. Despite my best efforts, they turned in papers late, didn’t address the topic assigned, didn’t write drafts, didn’t come to class, didn’t respond to my emails asking them to stop by office hours, or they just plain flat wrote terrible papers–one page where five pages were assigned, bad spelling and grammar, poor writing, awful sentence structure. Or worse, they plagiarized.

    I felt terrible. But a wise older professor pointed out to me, “You did not fail them. You did everything you could. They failed themselves.” That last sentence can be taken a couple of different ways, but the point is, you can help all you want, but some people self-destruct.

    Another way of looking at the situation, given to me by a mentor, was, “You did not *give* them a grade. They *earned* a grade.” I think there are parallels to the OP’s situation. You can give all the advice and help possible, but the other person needs to make an effort, as well.

    1. HeyNonnyNonny*

      Yes! When I taught, I always assigned a first paper that counted for almost nothing and that most students failed (I taught college freshman, so a lot of them hadn’t yet learned about things like deadlines and following directions). It didn’t majorly affect their final grade, but they learned that consequences were a real thing.

      1. BRR*

        I love the sample assignment to begin with. Because until you take a professor’s test you’re not sure how to study for it (oops I just touched on a big problem with the education system).

    2. Chinook*

      Xarcady, I too have failed a student but I took pride in it. It was high school religion (it was a requirement in my school) and it was pass/fail as long as they did the work. His mom and I talked regularly and she knew he wasn’t doing the work, so she wasn’t surprised by the result but she was not happy with him and grounded him for the summer. When I ran into him at his summer job (the only time he was “free”) where he worked with a classmate, he complained about me failing him. I turned to his buddy (who did worse academically overall and was known to be disruptive in most classes) and asked if he failed my class. Buddy’s response, “Nope because I did my work.” I just grinned at failed student and walked away.

      Strangely, I didn’t have to fail anyone the following year.

      1. Jen S. 2.0*

        That had to feel good (not failing him, but getting to make that point). I mean, I even have a feeling of satisfaction for you. Don’t you love when karma hands you an opportunity like that?

        1. Leah*

          This reminds me of a class I took freshman year that was the easiest class I’ve ever taken. It was about criminal justice, and probably half the material was intuitive. The tests had 10-20 points extra credit – but the EC was on topic, so it was basically like the test was out of a possible 120, but on a 1-100 scale. S0 you could lose 30 points and still get an A-.

          And a bunch of people failed the class. The rest had 95 averages. Confuses me to this day.

            1. Blue Anne*

              *twich* Have to say, having grown up in a family of criminologists, I’m not super enthused about this attitude. Um, yes, of course you can get a degree in it. It’s very important stuff. Some areas my parents have worked on include the difference in sentencing for the same crimes for black and white men, shooting at people who are running away, police accountability… any of this sound like stuff that might be relevant and need passionate experts in today’s climate?

              Lots of things which have reputations for being “light-weight” are still very important. How “light-weight” a subject is often has a lot more to do with how it’s taught than the subject matter.

              1. Your Maidan Aunt Edwina from Kalamazoo*

                I actually agree with you that it’s a very important topic, and I apologize for any offense. But I have seen (for instance) various guides on how to get into law school that say, for instance:

                Further, criminal Justice and pre-law majors typically carry rampant grade inflation, so a law school admissions department might be inclined to discount a good GPA you receive in such a program slightly. Although Ann Levine, a former admissions dean and an expert in these matters, states that these majors wouldn’t cause any bias against you, she does state that you had better not get a low GPA in these majors. This indicates a belief that these are considered easy majors, such that doing great in them won’t be any real credit to you, and doing poorly is an big strike. [UPDATE: Ann just got quoted in Business Insider saying, “Law schools don’t consider [the criminal justice major]academically rigorous”, so I guess the gloves are off at least with respect to criminal justice.]

                I’ll post the URL in a followup. This is just one such mention that I happened to encounter in a quick google search.

                Again, I’m sorry if I offended you. My original comment wasn’t intended as a casual ‘dig’.

                1. Blue Anne*

                  Ah, fair enough. That’s actually pretty interesting and not something I had realized, although I always did hear my mother moaning about her her PhD students were brilliant but had managed to get through the system without good writing skills!

                  I think it was the “which you can get a degree in” which got me, like it was somehow surprising that you could get a degree in something as wishy-washy and inconsequential as Criminal Justice. ;)

  11. Kaz*

    Try to get over this undesirable episode by focusing your energies on the productive employees that remain instead of the ex-employee that no longer works there. For example, have a company paid lunch for everyone :)

    I’m curious, the OP has not mentioned if the dismissal was officially with cause or without cause.

  12. LeahC*

    As someone on a team that comprises a member very similar to OP’s former employee, I can attest that OP did the right thing. Our team member’s behavior is not addressed in any way and it’s extremely damaging to morale. And there are many more of us than there are of her, so I do wonder why her feelings/situation (seem to) matter more than ours.
    Firing someone definitely sucks to do, but it might help to know that what you’ve done definitely benefits your current employees.

  13. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I appreciate your concern, op, but there’s one crucial element you are leaving out: all the other workers who showed up to work on time and got their work done on time and correctly.

    Speaking as one of those people in that group, far too often the concern for bad workers supersedes the concern for everyone else who does a good job. I get it. Firing brings up visions of confrontations, lawsuits, paperwork, etc. Everyone else is doing what they should so they aren’t a concern. But they should be.

    Concern for bad employees, without regard to how this affects everyone else, drives down morale and make us wonder what the true priorities are. No workplace should double as a charity/daycare.

    Instead of feeling bad about her, think about the strong example you just set for everyone else.

      1. It's tired, and I'm late*

        Indeed. One of the managers where I work allegedly defended his decision to give an, um, problematic temp a permanent position by saying “but if I don’t hire him, who will?” – as if this were a care in the community program. Baffling.

          1. Snarkus Aurelius*

            I believe it. The old job I had, which inspired me to write the original post, acted like a charity too. Boss would continually farm out work of poor performers to everyone else while the poor performers slacked off. Sure I heard excuses about depression and anxiety and family issues, but the poor performers never got better over the years. Why should they? They gamed the system perfectly.

            In the meantime, the rest of us were held to a much higher standard and were sniped at constantly. You couldn’t have an off day. It was so weird. Looking back, I think boss didn’t feel like she could fire them so she took her frustrations out on the rest of us.

            1. Michele*

              A couple years ago, I refused to take someone onto my team because of that sort of thing. She and I had worked together on a couple projects, and she always had some excuse for work not being completed. There was this problem with her family and that problem with her health and on and on. We would get to then end of a project, and she wouldn’t know anything about it because she had been avoiding doing the work. It became obvious that there would always be something and that she was one of those people who didn’t do anything during the day but worked late so she could be the martyr (I would love to go home to my family, but there is so much work to do…). When I was asked to supervise her directly, I refused. She could be someone else’s problem.

    1. Sabrina*

      I agree. There’s a difference between firing someone who can’t make it to work on time or call in when sick, repeatedly, and someone who missed a day of work because they had a stroke (yep seen it happen). I don’t really think the termination is making life difficult for this person, this person is making her own life difficult.

    2. Former Diet Coke Addict*

      Good God, yes. When one employee is generally not pulling their weight and making other employees pick up their slack, all that happens is that it creates heaps of resentment. We are to sit there and wonder why we get raked over the coals for not completing things fast enough when our coworker doesn’t bother doing them at all and nobody says boo. It’s frustrating and a huge morale suck, because why should we stretch when the boss is clearly demonstrating that effort isn’t valued?

    3. MR*

      I’d love Alison’s take as to why this type of stuff not only goes on, but almost seems to be encouraged. I’ve seen it multiple times in my career, and every time, it kills the morale of the other employees.

        1. Sarahnova*


          So many people are incredibly avoidant of having any kind of difficult conversation, and managers’ inability to manage performance has turned many a situation, or in some cases entire company, toxic. I have seen it far, far too many times in my work as a consultant.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      This. As a manager you have to consider your group as a whole. What do they need from you? Feeling upset over a fire is a one-side perspective. How about feeling upset for the rest of the crew that had to work with this nice slacker for so long? Being a nice person is great, but some people use it as a crutch so they can get away with not doing their job. Maybe I am cynical, but the way I would get myself back to reality is to tell myself that I just got played/duped.

  14. Anon in AZ*

    I was put on an improvement plan and ultimately, my contract was not renewed. My manager was really sketchy about giving concrete feedback and justified her decision by saying that others in my situation have gone on to bigger and better things. I still think she handled the situation badly and feel a tiny bit of resentment that I didn’t measure up. However, even if the statement was her way of making herself feel less guilty, she was right. I moved on from that career field and am much happier, less stressed and better paid now.

    You have the advantage that you sound like a sane manager. Take heart in knowing it may be the best not just for your team, but for the employee as well.

  15. Anx*

    I can imagine why you feel guilty or bad. After all, employment is critical for many people to survive.

    If it helps, think about the fact that there are many other unemployed people who would jump at the chance to work for anyone, never mind someone who actually gives second chances and opportunities to make up for any mistakes. Will this termination eventually make room for another employee in your company?

  16. Jen S. 2.0*

    I’ve never had to fire anyone, but I am often a little…nonplussed? when I read about people feeling guilty for doing difficult things.

    In my opinion, guilt is an emotion that occurs, but you don’t have to heed it. You can feel guilty for doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid doing that thing. The emotion isn’t telling you you’re wrong.

  17. NickelandDime*

    It’s sad, but she kind of fired herself. Think about it. It sounds like the OP gave the employee appropriate feedback and ample opportunity to improve, and she opted not to do it. How hard is it to come to work on time, regularly and do the bare minimum of your job description? It shouldn’t be that hard. And if it is, it’s up to the employee to address the issues that make it hard – scheduling, transportation, childcare, elder care, whatever it is. In fact, many companies offer EAP to help employees with things like this. If people don’t care enough about themselves, their family and their career to avoid getting fired, what can you do?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Some people can’t quit. They wait to be fired. For some reason that is better (??).

      1. Stephanie*

        Depending on her finances, she may have wanted the extra months of income. It’s also easier to qualify for unemployment. And she may have been eligible for severance.

        When I was a fed, COBRA payments were also lower if you were fired (versus resigning).

        Also, IME, I found some interviewers just kind of assumed you were fired even if you did say you quit with nothing lined up.

  18. BritCred*

    My bosses hated “firing” me due to my health even though I agreed it was best for the business. Its hard but not like this one didn’t earn it. A employer isn’t there to make their employees life easy. The employees need to do the work too…

  19. BethRA*

    Just because someone has compassion for/concern about someone they’ve had to fire does not mean they are not concerned for the rest of the team. The OP even states that the firee’s impact on her coworkers was part of the reason they let her go.

  20. Rebecca*

    Ugh, I had this exact same situation once. The employee was good at her job, but missed a lot of work and was constantly late. This was in a retail environment when someone absent really affected the team’s ability to meet our customer’s needs. I knew she had two sons (one with health problems) and I gave her as many chances as I could, but nothing changed.

    I really hated doing it and felt so guilty, but I had to think of it in terms of “I’m not the one firing her, she’s firing herself.” I was very clear about the consequences of her not being on time or at work at all and offered to change her schedule or whatever needed to happen. But it was ultimately up to her to get to work, I couldn’t do that for her.

    1. Rebecca*

      Forgot to add, I also had to think about it in terms of the rest of my team. Her actions (or lack of) affected her teammates and would eventually have a major effect on morale if I made an exception for her.

    2. NickelandDime*

      I understand you feeling a bit sorry for her, but you shouldn’t feel guilty. She should feel guilty that she couldn’t get it together to ensure she kept her paycheck so her son with health problems could continue to get what he needed. It’s like these people have all these problems, and then want to add the problem of not having a paycheck. I don’t get it. They don’t know how hard it is out in these streets to get a job, how difficult it’s going to be discussing a firing in interviews, the burned bridges at the previous job, not having a good reference, etc.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Some of them do know, but they can’t seem to get their shit together in time to keep their job. And this doesn’t mean they’ll be like that forever, as we’ve seen from the examples above where people blew it and then went on to bigger and better things.

    3. Beancounter in Texas*

      I currently have a subordinate who is like this. Of the two bookkeepers I supervise, she’s the stronger employee in terms of knowledge, speed & skills. But she was regularly late and has regularly overslept her alam (as in, calling at 11am when she woke up again). She’s improved recently, but the bad spell where she was three hours late four Fridays in a row casts a long shadow. Her performance otherwise is not an issue.

  21. MyFakeNameIsLaura*

    I understand that it isn’t management’s responsibility re: why an employee hasn’t changed their behavior, but I’m noticing in several comments that people are assuming they aren’t motivated enough or want to change/improve XYZ. All we really know is that said behavior did not improve as the company needed to retain the employee. I’m sure everyone can relate to feeling motivated to change something but due to a myriad of factors be unable to do so.

    Maybe this is just being pedantic about word choice, but I’ve definitely been in the position of wanting to do XYZ, knowing I should do XYZ, but am unable without help. Sometimes that help isn’t something you can get or even ask an employer about – again for various reasons.

  22. loquaciousaych*

    I am currently in the end result of this situation. I got a new job, and it took a lot longer to get there than I thought. I encountered traffic and other issues that could have been avoided by leaving earlier, and I didn’t do that, and was let go just this week.

    It’s completely on me, and I;m trying to learn and move on from it, but it is really tough.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      It IS tough. I understand. But don’t beat yourself up about it–that’s rarely constructive. Acknowledge, take what you can learn from it to heart, and move on.

    2. FiveByFive*

      loquaciousaych, that does sound tough. Sorry for your situation.

      You mention you are trying to learn from this. Maybe others can learn from it, too. Would you mind sharing what you think the problems were? Were you just in denial about the lateness issue? Or the seriousness of it? Or just couldn’t break bad habits? Were you maybe not happy there in general, and the lateness was just a symptom?

      Again, sorry this has happened to you.

      1. loquaciousaych*

        There were a number of comorbid issues. One, I wasn’t happy there and so yes, the lateness was a symptom; but additionally my boss asked me if “x schedule” was a problem. For whatever reason, I didn’t interpret that as anything other than a question (ie she saw it as a lead in to giving me a shift I COULD be on time for) and never said anything about showing up differently. The other big issue was that the job had a MUCH stricter control on time than I was used to for 3+ years and literally a MINUTE was cause for a write up.

        I will admit that I just didn’t adapt to the demands of the new place well at all and that’s on me; along with not making changes sooner to get there on time. (I made some, but too little too late, IMO)

        I leave much earlier and allow more time to get places now, and will look for signs that I might encounter problems getting where I am going, and doing what I can to get hired somewhere new. It’s difficult, because it feels like I am now starting all over even though I had stable and reliable work history for a long time previous to this instance.

        1. FiveByFive*

          Thanks for sharing! It’s good to hear the perspective from the other side of the situation. It seems like you have the right attitude to get back on your feet. Not everyone is so introspective and willing to make changes. Best of luck to you.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          It sounds like not being happy there was the starting point for the chain of events. This means you are human. I have had a few jobs where I was angry with myself for waiting until the last minute to leave for work. It was a symptom. Be a good friend to you and figure out why you disliked the job and how you will avoid those types of settings again.
          Put this under the heading of “crap happens”. This is a one time thing, probably because you underestimated how much you did not like the job. You still do have a stable work history. It did not go anywhere.

  23. Dan*

    I once read that firing someone is doing them a favor. Yes, it’s short term pain, but also hopefully long term gain. When they’re struggling, they can’t be happy with a boss who is “always picking at my work” or “says I can never do anything right.”

    While I don’t have hire/fire authority, I can tell my boss I don’t want someone on my team (whether or not I get rid of them is a different story.) At my last job, I was running a small team with someone who just wasn’t cutting it. Our company also wasn’t doing very well, so booting that person off the team would likely mean she would get laid off in the next round.

    I spoke with project lead, who told me how to handle things was my call, and he’d back it either way. I ended up going to my team member’s boss and outlining the situation and what I tried to do to rectify the problem.

    This person just had their second kid. Did I *want* to put them on the unemployment line? No. But the flip side was that my team would run less efficiently and I’d have to spend way too much time managing this person. It’s honestly not fair to the person to expect them to deliver things they’re not capable or not willing to produce, when they’ve demonstrated that they can’t/won’t do what needs to get done. It’s also not fair to me and my boss — deadlines are stressful enough, they don’t need to be made worse by people who don’t turn in quality work.

    1. soitgoes*

      Your last paragraph dovetails with my comment. Can you tell me why you, in your particular situation, factored the employee’s two children into your thought process about his continued employment? Would you have fired a childless employee sooner? Would you have had less mental anguish over it? I’m just curious.

      1. Kyrielle*

        For me, I would have more mental anguish over recommending firing (since I don’t have hire/fire authority) someone I knew had a dependent (whether that was children or elderly parents) who would experience hardship because of the firing. Because yes, the person being fired also will experience hardship, but they had a chance to turn it around. Their dependents didn’t…and that makes it feel like I’d be impacting an “innocent”.

        Never mind that the business is not a charity and needs what it needs, I’d still feel bad for them.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          Me too. I have never had to fire someone with children, but a couple of very senior people who each have two or three kids have been fired in the last year. One of them was someone I *hated* working with — he was kind of a slave driver, and rude to boot. I certainly wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stand him!

          But even so, I couldn’t rejoice when he was fired, because it’s got to be tough to go home and tell your kids that their lives are about to change.

      2. Dan*

        I didn’t have hire/fire authority, as I mentioned in my post. The person is a she (not a he) as I also mentioned in my post. Why, exactly do you think the person’s parental status had any bearing on their continued employment? As someone new to team leadership, my first concern was actually making sure that *I* am running my team effectively and giving my team the tools necessary to succeed. Once I’ve checked those boxes, then it’s on to making sure I’ve got the right people on my team.

        I can’t say the employee’s personal situation had any effect on how quickly I brought issues to the attention of the higher ups, but I’m almost certain she missed around of layoffs because she just returned from maternity leave.

  24. soitgoes*

    I don’t want to nitpick, but everyone else has written some good comments about the main point, and I agree with them.

    There’s a line in the original email about being reluctant to fire the employee because she was a single mother to a young child. To the managers and business owners here: Have you ever been more swift to fire someone who didn’t have children? Would you give a mother more chances out of concern for her children? This is pinging a fear that I, as a childless woman, have when it comes to work, and I’m a bit nervous to see it so plainly spelled out by someone who has the power to hire and fire people. Apparently, in this situation, someone with children WAS given additional consideration, if only in the form of additional guilt on the part of the person firing her.

    1. fposte*

      I’m not sure “more guilt” is the same as “additional consideration,” though. If she got fired the same time anybody else would be fired, then I don’t think she got any additional consideration.

      I’m a childless person myself, so I get where you’re coming from; I would be furious if I got fired before a slacker because s/he had kids. But conversely, I understand being sadder about firing somebody with kids, because it means I know my decision is going to have consequences for people who don’t deserve it and have no power to do anything to protect themselves against it (disclosure here that I’ve been adjacent to such a firing but I’ve never had to actually do one). I don’t know how to be sure I walk the line between the two, but I think it’s reasonable to be sad that innocent bystanders are getting a hit alongside the employee.

      1. soitgoes*

        Do you think that a lot of people are able to separate the two though? If you feel sad about how a firing will affect the children, how do you make sure that doesn’t influence your actions as a manager? There’s no way to get more information from the OP in this instance, but I wonder at the number of chances this employee got in light of “she’s a single mother.”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You always have to give yourself a reality check about whether you’re doing the right thing for the organization, and if you’re doing it fast enough. There will always be things that give you pause — he’s a nice guy, she has kids, he moved here for the job, maybe she could get better if I could give her more time — but your job as a manager is to figure out what needs to happen and do it.

          1. Joey*

            eh. I admit to considering personal situations when deciding whether to fire someone. For example, I’ve given extra leeway to people who I know have faced significant adversity in their personal lives.

        2. fposte*

          I think this gets into areas we can’t really control, though; whether people separate the two or not, our options don’t change much. And honestly, given how bad humans are at assessing what’s motivating us, I’m likelier to believe Joey, who says that some things do affect his decision, than people like me who say they don’t.

          1. Joey*

            I wouldn’t believe someone if they said they don’t let personal situations affect employment decisions. Id absolutely consider giving extra consideration to say someone who is battling cancer or someone whose struggling in their personal life. As long as the personal struggles are temporary and you believe the employee is worth the short term pain wouldnt you do it?

            1. soitgoes*

              Does that mean that you would fire this hypothetical employee if he or she didn’t have kids or personal struggles? Because if you’re giving them extra sympathy and consideration, that means you’d have fired someone else you had less sympathy for.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                I see a lot of advice on here that says cue the boss in that you are having Big Issue going on.
                I think that if the boss believes things will get better, it is easier to hang on for a while longer. It is also helpful if the employee initiates the conversation by speaking up “I realize my work has not been up to par lately and it is because I have Heavy Distracting Problem which should ease up in a short bit.”
                The employee in this example 1)acknowledges the problem 2) takes the initiative to bring it up 3) has a plan and 4) has desire to do better.

                Each point is a big deal. I think if the boss knows an employee is having problems, it shows that some line of communication is open. The worst thing that can happen is that the employee does not talk to the boss at all.
                Just because a person does not have kids/struggles does not automatically mean the boss can’t find reason to have empathy. Heck, the person could remind the boss of herself when she was starting out. There is more than one way bosses can find in roads to a person’s setting.

                I think that some people do make decisions based on an employee’s kids/struggles but not all the time. In my mind, the crappier jobs work this way. I used to figure if they would let me go because I don’t have kids or struggles like the others do, it might be for the best anyway. If I had stayed on, I could probably wear the wrong color socks and they’d let me go for that.

              2. Joey*

                Possibly. My point is if you have any temporary personal struggles that might mean you get extra slack if I believe the temporary pain is worth the long term gain

        3. Joey*

          Just to clarify its not that I give special consideration to those with kids. It’s that I give consideration to any good employee who is facing any kind of temporary personal adversity. Yes, single parents may fall into that category, but so does many things that affect anyone.

      2. RVA Cat*

        One thing the OP should consider when feeling guilt about the effect on the child is this – it’s this child’s parents’ responsibility to provide for him, not the employer. This was already a sad situation with this single mother apparently receiving no support whatsoever from the child’s father. We have (or had…) a social safety net for innocent bystanders just like this kid. At least in my state, the mom should be eligible for unemployment even though she was fired for cause, because the cause was not misconduct (i.e. stealing, etc.).

  25. puddin*

    At one Old Job there was a kind of joke where front line staff (not managers) used the line “made the employee immediately available to accept alternative job offers” in lieu of saying “he got fired’.

    It does have a ring of truth to it…

  26. Artlover*

    I’ve been fired, too. This rocked my perfectionist self to the core. I think a progressive process such as a verbal talk, written warning, PIP, etc are so important, even though I underatand work is not a charity, feedback does wonders sometimes for the right people. I know I would have appreciated warning about whatever was wrong from my manager. I was getting sick from a disibility I have, denied accommodations and was fired for attendance when I called out (with time, and also not in a “bad” day to do so), four days after this woman became my manager. She’d also found out some personal info about three weeks before and despite meeting our team (of 2)’s objectives I was told she didn’t like my production either. I had no warning. I’ve always had great relationships with my managers… That experience jaded me badly and I’ve had trouble remembering she and other authority are people just like me. Part of what made it so hard is I can’t imagine her feeling bad – she wasn’t a bad person but I do hope it isn’t easy to fire someone. My office was shocked.

      1. Artlover*

        I know a lateral fled. I was her only employee, but last I heard they hadn’t replaced me in all this time so… not sure if others have left, or have been on to leave yet :)

  27. lina metallium*

    I agree that something’s not right with the manager if they don’t have even the slightest bit of compassion. I had to fire someone for misconduct (insubordination, yelling at me, etc) and while I was relieved to see him go, I still felt awful about the whole thing.

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