When you start to think about whether to fire an employee, it is a sign there’s a problem you need to deal with. Do not put off making this decision. At the same time, avoid rushing into it without going through due process to identify whether firing is the appropriate action to take. If you get to the point that you decide to terminate, you want to make sure that you are doing it ‘for all the right reasons’, not simply to get a nagging problem off your back. Moreover, going through a thoughtful process will identify areas for improvement in your management or in the organization’s processes that could prevent future performance issues, or at least help you deal with them in a timely manner.

If you are in the publicly funded sector there will likely already be a disciplinary process set out, especially if your staff are unionized. In the private sector there may be no process specified at all. Either way, there are good practices one should follow to support a respectful and effective approach to decide whether to fire someone.

What frequently gets in the way of managers managing performance or terminating employment is having to deal with the potential for the employee’s emotional upset.  As someone who has fired people, and been fired myself, I have experienced the event from both sides, and learned what worked well and what didn’t from both perspectives. Some employees are shocked, either because they had no advanced warning or because they didn’t read the signs that were amply provided. Some may have personal responsibilities that increase their dependence on a job and are feeling a level of despair. Alternatively, some employees have heard the feedback and realize that it is time to move on but need to have the decision made for them.

In all cases, there are ways to approach the process that can make things better or worse for the employee, yourself as the manager, and the organization as a whole. Here are 4 steps that can maximize the benefits for all.

Step 1. Describe what the problem is in objective terms

Identifying the specific behaviours that concern you, in objective terms, will separate the behaviour from any judgements you have developed about it.

  • Use words that describe the behaviour itself; for example, the person is: late for work, drinking on the job, not completing the required documentation, making errors… Do not use words or phrases that are judgemental; for example, the person is: lazy, not a team player, disruptive…
  • State the frequency with which the behaviour occurs: for example, daily, monthly, every Friday of a long weekend in the past year…

Step 2. Consider the type and level of impact of the problem

A question managers frequently ask is, ‘when is enough, enough?’ Some examples of what you may be experiencing include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Bad behaviour continues, even after your follow-up, documentation and progressive discipline. If there are now no consequences other staff may perceive that ‘people can get away with things around here’, and follow suit.
  • Staff morale is significantly affected due to the person’s behaviour.
  • Productivity of others is significantly undermined because the individual is not completing their work.
  • Their behaviour is creating significant discord amongst staff, yet they don’t see that as ‘their problem’.

There is no magical formula to know when enough is enough, and you may have reasons for not wanting to fire the individual; for example, the credentials or skills required in the position may be hard to replace, or they may be very good at the other parts of their job.

Test whether these reasons are sufficient by asking yourself the question, ‘Would I have offered them the job if I knew they would behave or perform in this way?’ If not, proceed with the consideration of termination.

In cases of employees’ major violations, such as stealing, misrepresenting credentials, or blatant disregard for safety that endangers themselves and others, which may in themselves be fireable offences, you will quickly need to consult with H.R. and legal expertise.

Step 3. Consider if the person or environment or another variable is the cause of the problem or its continuation

Knowing the cause of the problem will help you decide how likely it is to correct it:

  • Assess if the employee is not able to do the job, or they could do it if they applied themselves but don’t? If the issue is competency you can determine if further training or coaching may help. If it is attitude, the issue and its possible solutions are more complex.
  • Seek objective feedback from others to help answer this question; for example, your peers on the management team. Take care to not bias their feedback by saying, ‘I am thinking of firing [insert name], what do you think of his performance?’ Say, alternatively, ‘Could you please provide feedback on the performance of the members of my team?’ Or, if the person with whom you are consulting with doesn’t know your team well, share the example of behaviour that concerns you and ask what they would do.
  • Consult with H.R. resources to help you navigate considerations of legislation, human rights, and employee assistance programs.
  • Consider if the job has changed from when they started. Organizational growth can result in changing job requirements for which they may not be competent or received training.
  • Check whether you have provided sufficient feedback to the employee about the problem. Are they clear on the requirements of the job, do they know the gap between their level of performance and expectations?

Step 4. Consider your options

Now it is time to formulate your action plan:

If you decide that remediation may be possible you can try one of two approaches

  • Development or coaching plan

Have you have done all that you can to support expected performance or behaviour in the employee? If you genuinely feel there is room for improvement and that the employee is motivated and/or training can close the gap in level of competence to do the job, then proceed with a development or coaching plan.

  • Performance improvement plan (PIP)

PIPs are often used as part of progressive discipline approaches. I find they are most helpful when attitude is part of the problem. If you have doubts there is promise for employee success – that the individual does not understand the problem, or is simply not taking responsibility, a PIP provides a formal way to clarify expectations within a specific timeline not exceeding 3 – 4 months, monitored at regular intervals, and documented. The outcome should be clear at the outset that failure to achieve the improvements will lead to termination.

In cases where remediation is not successful or very unlikely, you will need to proceed to a formal meeting to communicate your decision. If you have followed and completed the other steps of the process there should be no surprise to the individual.

The next blog post will address the approach to communicate to someone they are being fired.

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