Problem: You have an employee who isn’t performing up to your current expectations, but because of your history and emotional connection to the employee, you can’t bring yourself to let them go.
The solution to this problem is not easy. It’s one that requires you – the manager – to make decisions that are extremely difficult to make. Firing someone from a company or a department that you’ve built, often with the help of this employee, is never easy. But in many cases, managers are one tough decision away from unlocking a new level of growth and potential.
Outgrowing the Employee
Let’s set the stage: Ten years ago, you founded a company. It was a true startup. Money was tight, and I mean really tight. That first year, there were no benefits and payroll might have been a day late on a couple of occasions. Over time, you hired some core employees who believed in your product and believed in you. You went to battle with this team, coming in early and working late. You celebrated the incredible highs and lamented the lows together. Everything you did, you did together.
But in those early days, there was one thing you didn’t do, probably because you didn’t have the time or training to do it. You didn’t manage the team. You spent all of your energy fighting fires and you left managerial duties on the back-burner. You rarely gave performance reviews or consistent feedback to team members. Company culture was something that came naturally in those days when fighting for survival is the only way. This style of managing a company often works in the early days…until it doesn’t.
As companies grow and revenues increase, new employees come in and the management team grows. In this phase of growth, the original team usually finds itself rising up the totem pole, taking on new roles that they probably aren’t trained or prepared for. Some employees rise up to the challenge and continue being rock stars for you. But some simply aren’t cut out to go from “member of the team” to “leader of the team” overnight. Since you’ve been focused on putting out fires and leading the company out of startup territory and into a full-fledged successful business, you aren’t prepared for the simple truth of the matter: you may have outgrown some of your original team.
After finally getting the company off the ground, your revenues and profits increased. Then, something interesting happened. Maybe revenues flatlined, the growth curve slowed, or profits declined. Obviously, this development is less than ideal, so you went looking for help. You reached out to mentors or you may have brought in a consultant to help you figure out what was going on. Any consultant worth their salt will help you understand that running a company requires effective management. Next-level management, of course, includes things like analytics, performance benchmarks, and measuring the successes and failures of employees. It usually becomes painfully clear which of your original team members are struggling in their expanded roles.
At this moment, you are faced with a difficult decision that you never anticipated in your bootstrapping startup days. It’s time to consider firing an original employee, a loyal employee; one who can’t keep up in the company’s new reality. It’s time to Fire Better.
Firing someone is never the first option, of course. Sometimes, however, it is a necessary step to putting your business back on the path to growth and success.
Why Fire Better?
Once you’ve realized that an employee is not meeting the standards you’ve set, there are several ways you can proceed. The first is to have a frank discussion with the employee about your expectations in their current role versus your expectations of them in the past. If you cannot reach a common understanding with the employee, you must act in the best interests of your business now. Perhaps there is another role in the company that person would thrive in. If the employee will transition to that role enthusiastically, crisis averted. But what if you can’t reach an agreement?
CEOs and managers at any level are paid to make tough decisions that will ultimately benefit their businesses. It’s your job to reduce risk and continually grow the company. If that means letting someone go, it’s a step that must be taken.
In a lot of cases, managers will do everything they can to not fire someone that is clearly slowing the growth of their company. Many times it’s that emotional connection to the “good ol’ days” that save an underperforming employee. You went through tough times together. They may have saved the day on multiple occasions! They were critical to your growth early on. They’ve earned the right to skate by a little bit, right?
At times, leading means making difficult decisions. The fact that you’ve outgrown this person’s abilities and drive doesn’t make your emotional connection to the person any less valid. But there are several reasons beyond the obvious one (that their inability to meet expectations is hurting the bottom line) that make Fire Better the right option.
The first of these reasons is connected to the culture of the company as a whole. Remember in those early days, when culture came naturally due to the adrenaline of every situation being the life or death of the company? Now that the business has grown out of that phase, employees are looking to you, the leader, to set the tone.
When someone is clearly underperforming, you aren’t the only one that will notice (in fact, you are often the last to know!). Other employees and managers can tell when someone is in over their head. By doing nothing, you’re telling the rest of the team that you have lowered expectations. You’re saying that mediocrity is okay and might even result in promotion. Your inaction is subtly (or not) undermining the culture of the business. Win your team’s respect. Employees react well to seeing good work rewarded and subpar work dealt with accordingly. This is especially true if you handle the situation with grace and humility.
It’s perfectly natural for you to have reservations about this process. You’re human, after all, and your emotional connection to your employees is part of what makes the company culture work. In fact, in many cases we find that managers can’t pull themselves out of their emotions to make the right decision for their company. We call this being “emotionally compromised.”
If you’ve found yourself responding to a long-time employee’s obvious shortcomings by either: A) ignoring the problem and hoping your employee figures it out OR B) dealing with the problem by promoting or reassigning the employee and hoping their new team can work out the kinks later…You ARE emotionally compromised. Yep. You, the big, tough leader have a really soft spot for the employee, and you need help.
In many cases where the manager is emotionally compromised, we encourage bringing in a third party to help facilitate transparency and clarity. The third party can help you by giving an honest assessment of the situation. They can also set up corrective measures such as required benchmarks for the employee to meet. If you agree to corrective action (and it is a good idea to trust the third party in most cases, they have no reason to lie to you!), allow the analysts to set the required benchmarks and then determine if the employee meets these. Remove yourself as much as possible from the situation.
Of course, the easiest and best outcome for all is that the employee improves and moves into being a consistent, productive employee who meets or exceeds all job requirements. If that doesn’t occur, then we as managers have to Fire Better.
In the event that you do have to make the tough decision to fire an employee, don’t panic. In many cases where the company has outgrown an employee, that person would be better off in a different role, perhaps helping another company do what you did in the early days.
As for replacing the underperforming employee who is transitioning out? That’s where HireBetter can help. We specialize in identifying and recruiting new team members who not only can meet all the goals you hoped your original employee could, but also add tremendous value to the team. Someone who complements the skillsets already present in the room and elevates the performance of the entire team. We do this in part by seeking out candidates who aren’t even looking for jobs, then we match their skills to what you truly need.
As I was writing this article, I joked to my partner Kurt Wilkin that we should actually create a new service offering, “FireBetter”, to allow us to fulfill the third-party role I described above. While that isn’t a reality today, perhaps someday it will be. As it stands now, HireBetter plays a vital role today in helping our clients build next-level organizations. I encourage you to reflect on your team and think about how the concept of “FireBetter” could improve your team and help you achieve your goals faster.