how to fire an employee who’s trying hard

A reader writes:

I was recently promoted to oversee a team of 3. One woman who was hired before I started is not able to fully perform her job responsibilities. The employee readily admits that is true, and is very receptive to training and coaching but I am certain it will take years to get her the kind of training and experience she really needs.

However, the rest of my team and I are overwhelmed with a lot of work. I’m working 11-12 hour days in part to cover the work she can’t do and to spend time teaching her things. Plus, she drags the rest of the team down asking for help. For what she earns, I know I could easily hire someone a lot more productive and knowledgeable.

I can let her go via a “no fault termination” with severance, but I feel horrible because none of this is her fault and I know she will be devastated. Any advice on options or how to move forward?

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

{ 79 comments… read them below }

  1. PiggyStardust*

    I feel as though a plan to transition her out of the role may bring her some relief too — I can’t imagine she’s happy at work, struggling to do a job she is ill-prepared for.

    1. De Minimis*

      I’ve been in that position and it’s miserable—both the frustration of the job, and the uncertainty of what the outcome is going to be, because you know you’re not doing well.

    2. Parenthetically*

      Yeah, I’ve been there and it’s seriously so awful — I legitimately cried on my way to work most days toward the end. If my boss had built a transition plan for me to be able to job hunt while I kept working there, I would have been so grateful. I still was incredibly glad to negotiate a resignation with them and to see the back of that job, but boy the situation Alison describes would have been so wonderful.

    3. Amber Rose*

      Yeah, I doubt she’d be that devastated. I mean, it hurts to fail at something for sure, but it’s awful to struggle so hard at something and know you aren’t doing well, and I bet she’s definitely picked up on the whole “dragging down the team” vibe, which I have felt before and is so, so miserable.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. What’s worse is that she may be blaming herself for this situation, when it isn’t personal at all. If there’s any blame, it would be with the former manager’s hiring process.

    4. Stephanie*

      Relief isn’t the most accurate, but it doesn’t feel good to work hard and still fall short at a job. I’ve been there.

        1. De Minimis*

          I think when I went through it, the main relief was just that the unknown was no longer unknown.

          1. Stephanie*

            That’s true. I remember going into work every day like “…today is going to be the day.”

            1. De Minimis*

              It was still tough though when it was finally happening, and I was making that long walk down the hall to the partner’s office. It was like I was walking to my doom! Even though I knew it had been coming for months, and had even hoped to get it over with, I still felt initially upset.

              I can’t imagine what it’s like when people are actually laid off or otherwise don’t see it coming!

    5. RickSanchez*

      I have been in this situation as the employee and let me tell you, it sucks. My boss followed AskAManger’s advice to the letter. He told me that I could try to improve over the next month (and be let go if my efforts proved fruitless) or look for work elsewhere while he found my replacement. It sucked hearing this. Especially since I LOVED my job and thought I’d be doing it until retirement.

      “The advantage of offering both options rather than deciding for her is that she’ll feel that she’s been given a real chance.” No, she’ll feel like crap. Who wants to go work KNOWING their performance is going drag everyone else’s down? Who wants to look for a job when one they loved recently told them they’re a hindrance more than a help? That does serious damage to their confidence making it that much harder to look for a job that fits them better.

      Offering up this illusion of choice does nothing to help. I would have been MUCH happier if I was let go then and there. I respected (and still respect) my company and didn’t want to be a drain on them, which I told my boss. He told me to take the weekend to think. I realized that it was better to put in my two weeks and leave on my own terms, not his. My boss was relieved when I told him the news. He was going to “let me go” no matter what I did.

      I hated my last two weeks because I knew I was nothing but a drag. Having that hang over your head does not make you want to work better. It just makes you count the days until you’re gone.

      My advice is to offer the improvement chance only if you know she has a real shot at improving. Otherwise, let her take all the time she needs to find a better fitting job.

      1. Greg*

        Thanks for sharing, and I’m sorry you went through that. As I was reading the responses from others who just assumed the employee would be relieved, I was thinking, “How can you know how every person will react to a situation, especially a high-stress one?”

        I was in a similar situation earlier in my career. I knew I was in the wrong job and was actively looking, and then I got a new boss who recognized the situation and seemed determined to build a file on me and force me out. Fortunately I was able to get an offer just before the ax fell, but if I hadn’t I can’t imagine any scenario that would have made it any better.

        So yes to Allison’s advice to be honest, forthright and compassionate to the employee, because that’s how you should always ask. But don’t assume that will make everything OK. It’s just a crappy situation.

  2. Ann Furthermore*

    OP, this person probably knows in her heart that she isn’t the right person for the job, but she’s still trying as hard as she can, and knows she’s still coming up short. That’s got to be really disheartening for her.

    Putting it all out there, in a kind way, could be best for everyone all the way around. In her position, I’d be so relieved if my manager pulled me aside and said something like, “You’ve really been struggling, and I know how hard you’ve been trying. You’ve great some great skills and talent, but they aren’t a good fit for this job. We can either put together a formal improvement plan, or come up with a plan for you to transition out of this role. Take a little time to think about it and let me know what you want to do.”

  3. PiggyStardust*

    Actually, would she be eligible for an internal transfer? Like is there another department that doesn’t require such specific knowledge, or a more general position she can fill?

    1. Jillociraptor*

      That’s a great point. Institutional knowledge is no small thing, and combine that with someone who is very open and receptive to feedback, you have the makings of a great employee in the right role.

    2. Sualah*

      Yeah, that was my first thought. Granted that I work at a big enough company where internal transfers are almost always what’s pursued when it turns out someone isn’t a fit for a job.

    3. Parenthetically*

      I had that thought as well. It’s very possible that there isn’t an open position, but it seems smart to at least look around if the organization is large enough and see if there’s a spot suited to a hard worker who is receptive to feedback and has experience in the company.

    4. Manager-at-Large*

      This is what came to me as well. See if there is some place in the organization where she would do well. Perhaps there is even a chance that someone else from within would be happy to move into your team.

  4. Cortney*

    The last time I had to do this, the employee burst into tears and told me she was so relieved to have a positive way out. Helped her find a role she was better suited for and hired an awesome replacement. This situation can be a win-win if you handle it right.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      This. I don’t think it’s doing anybody any favors to keep someone who’s a bad fit for the position in the position, and while it might cause some short-term pain for both of you, it’ll work out for the best in the end. It’s crushingly demoralizing to continually struggle in a position you know isn’t right for your competencies.

  5. Jillociraptor*

    I wonder what ended up happening here. I appreciate that the OP was so intent on doing the right thing by her employee, and it seems like the employee had the right attitude to land on her feet.

    A friend of mine was the employee in this situation recently. It was at a company that I tend to think of as a chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out kind of place, and I was surprised to hear that they offer a several-month severance process as part of managing folks out, just as a matter of course. It’s a professional services company, and their thinking is that if their employees leave happy, they’re more likely to recommend their former employer’s services in their new company. Even if this isn’t the situation in this case, industries are often small and you never know when it will help to have someone mention offhandedly, “You know, Teapots Inc would be a fantastic partner for this…”

    1. Stephanie*

      Yeah, this happened to my friend at a BigLaw firm. I think they gave him three months to find a new job–he was on payroll, but didn’t really have billing requirements. He did say it was pretty awkward at work (although that that was preferable to being told to leave on the spot that day).

      1. De Minimis*

        I think this happened to me, but in a less overt way. I just was no longer given work for about 4-5 months. I’d try to find work, and no one would have any. When they finally did let me go [almost exactly one year after I started], they said they had a policy where they normally didn’t let new hires go before their first year was up, so I guess that’s what happened. It was pretty obvious after about six months that I didn’t have what it took, and I actually knew I was a poor fit pretty early on and had started job searching almost immediately.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Or has OP considered offering an outplacement? It seems like there are lots of options to transfer or relocate or dismiss the employee, all of which should be explored if it becomes clear that the employee’s performance is not going to improve (and it sounds like it won’t).

  6. AliceW*

    I’ve only ever had to fire one employee. But I did have to tell four former employees who were not working out to start posting for other jobs within the company or look elsewhere. All of them managed to find another job within 3-6 months. They were all aware that their performance was not up to par. None of them seemed too upset.

  7. Casuan*

    Alison, do you ever hear if the readers from other sites are interested in updates? If it were me [ie: if I never visited the Ask A Manager site], I wouldn’t necessarily think to look at your site for updates.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think Inc or other outside sites I write for are as interested in updates; my columns for them are a little different in nature than what I do here.

      1. Person of Interest*

        Apropos of nothing, the photo that Inc. selected for this post is kind of awesome.

  8. Noah*

    I think OP is being too hard on herself. It’s great that Employee is trying (really!), but it’s a bit generous to say that Being Unable to Do the Job is “through no fault of [Employee’s] own.” If she can’t do it, she can’t do it. And it sounds like the company has compassionate termination options.

    1. k*

      I have to respectfully disagree. If she was hired for a job she isn’t qualified for, that really isn’t her fault, it’s the company and people that selected her. There are some skills and knowledge that can only be learned through years on the job. If the job really required those skills, they should have hired someone that had them. Unless the employee lied about her qualifications there really is nothing she could have done to prevent this.

      Whoever did the hiring for this position really screwed up, and now OP and her employee and stuck with them mess.

        1. WaitingforMacaroni*

          This is so true. And it could happen slowly, over the years, or quite suddenly.

          I had a friend that was quite jarringly no longer a good fit because they wanted design ideas from her instead of merely drafting. It created a lot of problems and unhappy comments, but as she pointed out, that was not what she was hired for, nor was it in her job description but suddenly it was expected.
          She was rescued by a different department with clear expectations.

          Another person I used to work with clearly was no longer keeping up with the word processing technology and no longer grasped the finer points of the newer Microsoft versions at all much less how we were moving to the cloud. As the months rolled by and we barreled forward with all the new tech, it was clear she was not keeping up and she didn’t really plan to. She retired.

          1. paul*

            That’s a *huge* issue in non-profits.

            Hire someone with an LSMW…then expect them to understand finance. Or hire someone for administrative work then expect them to fill in in senior roles.

            Or hire someone for a program funded by X grant then the grant goes and you try to slot them elsewhere.

            1. De Minimis*

              Or hire someone in finance then ask them to spend most of their time doing administrative work….

      1. Stephanie*

        Or the employee and/or employer doesn’t do the best screening. I think one can get in an interview, get an offer, and be like “Sure, this’ll work!” and then find out that it doesn’t. FirstJob was a production-type/billable hours environment, which I *thought* I would be fine in…but I was absolutely terrible at working in that type of environment. I know this now and self-select out a job if that was apparent from the interview, but I didn’t realize it until I got to the job and struggled (and was ultimately fired).

      2. Katie the Fed*

        Sometimes people interview really well and will say all the right things to get the job, without thinking about whether or not it’s a good fit for them. I’m frequently amazed by how few questions I get when I interview candidates.

        1. De Minimis*

          I think sometimes you don’t have a lot of job prospects as a candidate and you just feel like you should try your best to get any job for which you interview. I know that was the case with my Bad Job. I had some concerns going in, but didn’t have anything else on the horizon. I’m in a better position now where I usually know before applying if something is likely to be for me.

          And it happens a lot with first jobs, or first jobs in a new field.

  9. Odyssea*

    It really sucks when an employee is genuinely trying hard, but just can’t make it work, especially when other employees get dragged down as a result. We had an employee a few years ago who just couldn’t manage the technology aspects of the job (and wouldn’t ask for help or follow the manual), which was frustrating for both her and the trainer, as well as the other employees who ended up spending a lot of their shifts cleaning up her messes. It ended up being for the best that she was let go; her frustration and anger had really brought team morale down, and we were able to replace her with someone who was a great fit for our team.

  10. AskingForAFriend*

    What does a transition plan look like? Is it essentially saying “you agree to quit by X date?” Or is there something more substantial behind it?

    1. JessaB*

      Sometimes there can be severance pay, or even time to job hunt whilst being paid. Some places will set you up with a job coach or some kind of recruiter type who can help you find something new. Or resume services etc. It really depends on the company. Some will let you work out your notice doing the stuff you CAN do and looking for a job for the other time.

      1. nonegiven*

        Tech companies phasing out some teams because they are going a different direction for business reasons, will give them 30 days on payroll to work with internal and external recruiters on finding another team they will fit into. Often several weeks of severance will come afterwards if they weren’t yet successful.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It can be things like “we’ll agree that you’ll stay in the role for the next two months but we won’t give you new projects; you’ll just keep things running, which will give you time to job search, you can take off time for interviews, etc. and we’ll be looking for a new person at the same time that you’re looking for your next job.”

  11. Anxa*

    I have the perspective of someone who’s desperate enough for a better job that I worry about finding myself in over my head if I finally do get a real job AND as someone who can’t seem to get a callback for jobs I am super confident I am well-suited for.

    I think a lot of commentators have already stressed the fact that this person is probably unhappy, too, and whatever you can do to minimize the chance of them sidelined from the workforce indefinitely over a bad fit is awesome and you should definitely try to help her out however you can.

    That said, think about the fact that (unless the role has a very low un(der) employment rate near you) there are probably lots of people who are unemployed or underemployed or newly graduated whose careers you may save or jump start by offering the chance to do the role when someone else clearly can’t.

  12. CmdrShepard4ever*

    This post almost seems like the mirror image of the one from yesterday where the letter writer was the person not fit for the job. So the employee may have already realized it is not a good fit and wants to know if they can actually improve or find a way out.

  13. Too Far to Reach*

    The OP stated: “…but I am certain it will take years to get her the kind of training and experience she really needs.”
    Your response included: “…with the understanding that you would need to let her go if she hasn’t met that bar at the end of, say, 4-6 weeks.”

    Years vs weeks. Weeks will clearly not be enough to span the chasm. What is the point? Given the situation as stated, an attempt at growing into the job would require a (long) sequence of 4-6 week trials, each with a new bar but the same old consequences if not met. To me that would be hell, not consideration.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The point is to give the person some element of choice in deciding how to move forward rather than just firing her — it’s saying “we can try this if you want, but my sense if that it’s not the right fit and we should talk about a transition.”

      From the post: “The advantage of offering both options rather than deciding for her is that she’ll feel that she’s been given a real chance, and the rest of your staff (if they hear from her about what happened) is likely to feel that she was treated with the same respect and fairness that they themselves would want.”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, I would not be able to say that, if it were me. It would feel dishonest or like a set up to fail situation. In other situations, I would not have a problem. Here I think I would cut to a conversation about how not every job is for every one. I would point out that her willingness to keep trying is outstanding BUT…..
      Then I would conclude with, “There is something out there that is meant for you. And once you find it, you have the commitment in place to excel at it.” It might be a little sandwichy to say it this way, but at this point this person is going to feel defeated/broken and perhaps be crying. If I can find something encouraging to say that is truthful, then I want to say it.
      I have fired people without finding anything encouraging to say. So there is that also.

    3. Annonymouse*

      It’s about choice.

      Clearly transition is the better choice but in offering both you give the employee a say in what their future will be.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        That’s very true. In many cases, an employee knows that it’s not a good fit but has been trying their hardest. Sometimes being given the option of leaving sooner is their preferred option, and sometimes it makes sense to stay on for a transition period. But what matters is giving the employee a sense of agency/choice and treating them with dignity.

  14. Bona fide*

    I’m always so impressed with the balance of the answers that Alison gives. The answer to this question is a good example of that. Not going too far into a toxic situation of keeping an under-performing employee around or the extreme of being cruel or unnecessarily abrupt.

    Not trying to be a suck-up, just appreciative!

  15. ern*

    I was in this position once, as the employee. I worked incredibly hard and just could not get some things to click. This letter is weirdly validating because my manager at the time, despite the fact that I was openly acknowledging my weaknesses, working hard, and as earnest as possible in terms of my shortcomings, took it all very personally and kept accusing me of being disrespectful to her and my colleagues which hurt a lot given how much energy I was pouring into the job. I understood her frustration (I felt it as well) but it left me with a really negative opinion of her. Thankfully, her boss seemed to appreciate the work I was putting in and my openness to criticism and we negotiated a lengthened notice period and flexibility so that I could job hunt on my way out. That way, by the time I left, I had a new job.

  16. Purple Jello*

    We just had to let go a temp worker instead of hiring her permanently. A new position was created in the department, but it didn’t cover the tasks the temp was doing, and we did not have the time or resources to bring her up to the level of knowledge or skills required for the job, if she was even capable of doing so. We in fact had created the temp position as a stop-gap to cover a bunch of extensive but minor tasks and handle large but uncomplicated projects and streamline some of the processes until we figured out what we needed as a department.

    She asked if we could train her for the new position, but it would be like training a cashier to be a department manager – different skill sets, but also disheartening because she didn’t seem to see what a gap there was in the positions. We did provide on the job training to help bring her skills up to the next level and it was unfortunate that there was no funding for a permanent position at her level of aptitude.

  17. annajal*

    I’m siding with the employee on this one! Is it really no fault termination? Legally speaking and based off of what I’ve read that isn’t “no fault termination” Good luck with your HR department! What if the employee is a protected one, this could all back fire in your face. Then you’d be at odds with the employee.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In the U.S., “no fault termination” isn’t a thing, and all employees are in protected classes (because everyone has a race, national origin, etc.).

    2. Katie the Fed*

      I doubt you’d side with the employee if you were stuck managing her, or as a coworker picking up her slack.

      The unfortunate reality is some jobs are just a bad fit. Nobody is to blame, but you can’t continue employing someone who can’t do their job.

      1. paul*

        Yep, not every story as a good guy or bad guy. Myabe it’s the whiskey talking but there’s a great old country song about that, “We Just Disagree”.Sometimes things just don’t work out, be it jobs, relationships whatever and it isn’t that one party or the other is at fault.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Honestly, I don’t know that the employee would even want to stay on. I’ve been this employee. It’s awful. Feeling like you’re working hard but are slowing down your team is incredibly demoralizing. Sometimes knowing that there’s a way out can help lessen the stress burden (I think De Minimis raised the same point in the context of feeling a sense of relief that everything was out in the open and final instead of looming).

    3. Annonymouse*

      Would you rather OP fire their employee for “not being able to do her job” as the official reason?

      The OP is in a hard place of wanting to do the best for everyone on their team –
      Herself and her reports who have to pick up the slack
      The worker who just isn’t up to scratch.

      OP can’t call it a layoff because the role still exists and needs to be filled.

      So I’m not sure where your wanting to attack is coming from.

      It’s not like the employee is doing a good job and OP is over demanding. The employee just doesn’t have the skills to succeed in this role.

  18. Katie the Fed*

    I’m about to let one of my employees go. She’s a new hire, but it’s been clear since she showed up that she lacked the critical thinking and problem solving skills to do this job successfully. I don’t think this is something we can coach or train our way out of, and if I don’t do it within the probation period it gets much, much more complicated to do.

    Unfortunately I don’t have the ability to allow her a soft transition like this. We have very rigid HR policies.


    This isn’t going to be fun.

    1. De Minimis*

      Definitely do it while it’s easy to do. This one just sounds like a mismatch where the person just isn’t right for the job and vice versa.

    2. Been There, Done That*

      But did she just “show up,” or did she go through a screening and selection process and was offered the job by someone who judged her qualified? Reminds me of a manager at a former employer. Her department door revolved at 60 mph. Years of unsuitable hires, hardworking, capable people sent packing. Yet Manager prospered in her job for about 20 years. I’ll be the first to say that when someone has to be let go, they have to be let go. But I think it’s terrible when they lose their job because someone else made a poor decision to hire them.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        She went through a screening process and an interview, but that can be a crapshoot depending on who is doing it. She’s actually extremely intelligent, but really lacking in common sense in problem solving. I’ve actually never seen anyone quite like this. So her resume is excellent (very academic) and she probably interviewed well, but this just isn’t the place for her.

        On the other hand, I’ve gotten a couple of excellent new hires too, so the process works sometimes.

  19. brightlights*

    This is such a timely letter for me as I am managing a contract-based employee who is trying hard, but is in the wrong job. I almost wrote in about him. The job is fast-paced and top performers can generalize information from project to project to respond effectively to new tasks. My employee feels overwhelmed by new tasks to the extent that basic projects feel above his level of competence. There are some other issues going on that are affecting his performance, but this letter is feeling familiar and reinforcing the decision I made about handling the remainder of his time here.

  20. cncx*

    I like this. there was one job i had where i just wasn’t meeting the requirements for the role, and i knew that, and i would have liked the offer of a transition. i actually wound up quitting for other reasons, but had management come to me and offered a transition i would have taken it (one of the issues was their pay and grading did not align with their expectations for the role, and it stayed unfilled for about a year after i left in consequence until they split it and upped the pay). Even if someone is not meeting all the requirements for a role, having someone in a chair can still help more than an empty chair in a lot of cases.

  21. Naruto*

    I like the transition plan idea, and I would emphasize that you would try to help her get a job that she is better suited for, if she wants.

  22. anonymouscontent*

    Wow did LW jump into my brain and write this? So glad to see this on the blog.

  23. Jojo*

    Is there a job in the company that this woman is more suited to? Intercompany transfer could be done.

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