Should You Fire a Difficult Employee? How to Decide

Mark Henricks

Some employees are easy, and some are so difficult that ordering them to clear out their desks seems like the only alternative. But the decision to terminate even egregiously difficult employees requires careful thought.

To begin, make sure you understand the problem.

Is the employee not performing up to par? If so, how far short is he or she? This is not always easy to answer, says David Lewis, president and CEO of Operations Inc., a Norwalk, Connecticut, human resources outsourcing and consulting firm. Some fractious employees maintain their own performance but cause others’ production to slacken. Seemingly unproductive individuals could be victims of external forces such as market shifts beyond their control. Other times it can just be hard to measure what is wrong. “The problem is that most positions in the workforce don’t have something as quantifiable as a sales quota,” Lewis says. “It’s far more subjective.”

Training, incentives and other tools.

Once you’ve sized the shortfall as well as possible, estimate whether it can be shrunk with training, incentives or other tools. Some gaps may be insurmountable. “If I’ve hired someone to do accounting and the gap involves the fact that the person is not good with numbers, is it reasonable to think that by coaching them, they are suddenly going to become a math whiz?” Lewis asks.

Even hard-to-coach poor performers may not be worth firing if it costs too much. It requires resources to recruit and train replacements, Lewis notes. Managerial self-image and the career benefits of a shiny hiring track record may also make it tough to admit to hiring the wrong person. “There’s ego and your own survival at stake here,” Lewis says.

Don’t for a moment forget legal issues.

Now is the time to ask whether you have a reasonable explanation for why you fired someone. Make sure the answer is solid. “Think about having to sit in a lawyer’s office with your lawyer and the lawyer for the person you’re considering terminating and having to answer questions,” Lewis says.

Also evaluate whether you have been and will consistently apply similar criteria to others. If not, a firing decision could lead to a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. “Where companies get themselves in trouble is inconsistent practices,” Lewis says. “’We dealt with Bob this way, but we’re dealing with Carol that way.’”

If you are satisfied you want to fire someone and can justify it, you still must prepare before making the move. Until you have warned a poor performer that improvement needs to be made, allowed time and opportunity to improve, and documented warnings and metrics, you probably aren’t ready to make a firing decision, says Gordon Shock, regional vice president in Cincinnati with Special Counsel, a legal staffing and recruiting provider. “Of course, if the employee in question commits an inexcusable act, immediate termination is warranted,” he adds.

Finally, before deciding to fire someone, decide how you will follow up.

This should include explaining the decision to remaining team members and telling them how it might affect them, such as added workload. “You need to be sensitive to their emotions, and then help redirect their focus back on work,” Shock says.

If this sounds very unlike angrily ordering someone to clear out their desk, it should. A termination decision should be approached coolly and rationally. Lewis likens it to playing chess. “Don’t move your piece now without thinking about the moves you’re going to be making four or five steps later,” he says. “What you’re doing today is potentially going to have consequences. You don’t want to be in a position where suddenly it’s checkmate.”


Next Steps:  Are you looking to manage your employees more effectively but don’t have time to keep up with the latest research and trends in talent management? We’ve got you covered with the weekly Small Biz Ahead Newsletter. Sign up today and start receiving the weekly newsletter chock full of the latest tools and resources to help you run a successful business.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *