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Is it time to fire that person?

Three questions you can ask to get clear on one of the toughest decisions a leader can face.

Early on in my career, I had to let somebody go. This person wasn’t a good fit, and everybody on the team knew it.

In the conversation, I remember saying, “I know how you must feel.”

She looked back at me and said, “You have no idea how I feel.”

She was absolutely right.

As I matured as a leader, I began to understand that, in life, three of the greatest turmoils anyone can face are death, divorce, and termination.

Getting fired is terrible – full stop.

And because of that, it’s one of the toughest decisions any leader faces.

Yet sometimes, it’s got to be done.

The big question is: how do you know when it’s time to let someone go?

How can you sort through a situation that’s complex, difficult, and emotional and arrive at a sound conclusion?

To help you navigate this decision, I’ve got three questions you can ask.

Each of these questions is designed to help you gain more clarity on the situation – both for the employee who’s struggling and for yourself as a leader.

Let’s get right into it.

Question #1: In what ways has this person met or not met company standards?

You’ve probably heard me say it before, but it’s true in this situation, too:

A leader’s responsibility is to define reality.

In any big decision, you need to start from a place of clarity. And you’ll never get clear if you don’t understand what’s really happening. So start by defining the reality of this employee’s performance at work.

Look at their output and work product. Evaluate whether they’ve achieved their goals and met expectations. Consider how their behavior has impacted company policies and culture. And don’t forget to check past performance reviews, too. As you go through this discovery process, be curious. Don’t try to confirm a particular conclusion one way or the other. Be objective as you consider the evidence and assess reality.

Question #2: How have we communicated any issues and offered coaching?

Firing someone is a monumental decision.

And it’s an expensive one, too. The Society for Human Resource Management found that each departure costs an organization roughly one-third of that worker’s annual pay. You don’t want to fire someone who might just need a little extra coaching or training in order to excel.

So as you’re evaluating someone’s performance, it’s important to look at how you’ve communicated any issues up until now and offered coaching to help them improve. Employees need feedback regularly, both positive and negative. If there are issues with an employee's performance, it's essential to address them as soon as possible.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since my conversation with Uri Levine, the co-founder of Waze. He shared some very bold advice about firing. He says, 30 days after you hire someone, ask yourself if you would hire that person again.

If the answer is no, then you should fire that person immediately.

It’s a big idea – and in the startup world that Uri thrives in, I get the need for swift action. In fact, I often hear leaders say the mistake they make most often is holding on too long when they know it’s time to let someone go. But I differ just a bit on this point. Instead of firing someone after 30 days, I would take them aside and talk to them. Tell them where they’re not measuring up.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of misunderstood expectations or a lack of training. In any termination decision, consider what kind of feedback you’ve provided. Review any interventions and coaching this person has received.

Could this employee be struggling because of a lack of resources or leadership? Are there still opportunities to offer coaching that could bridge the gaps and give the employee a chance to improve? Assessing your role in the situation is a key part of getting clear and coming to the right conclusion.

Question #3: How does this person’s presence and work affect the team and business as a whole?

Firing someone deeply impacts them. That much is obvious. But NOT firing them also has an impact – and it’s on your whole team.

Leaders often overlook this insight, but it’s important to consider the impact an individual has on your team's morale and productivity. If an employee is causing conflicts or creating a negative work environment, it’s a drag on the entire team. Not too long ago, I got to talk with Timo Boldt, the founder of the UK-based meal delivery company Gousto.

He learned early on as a founder that protecting his company culture sometimes means letting someone go. He told me a story of how he brought in a hot-shot senior leader from a large company. This person was getting great results but going about it all the wrong way – shouting at people, making unreasonable demands, and putting pressure on everyone.

“I had to lean into this tough decision,” Timo admitted. “The guy was performing, but in a horrible way that would drive away my most talented people really quickly if I didn't do anything.”

Did you catch the key insight Timo reveals there? You have to consider how this one person is affecting everyone else. Will keeping one employee drive others away? In Timo’s case, he let the person go – and he received plenty of relieved kudos from his team once it was done. Take the time to understand the bigger impact of an employee’s presence on your company as a whole.

The decision to fire someone isn’t easy. There is real anguish involved in looking someone in the eye and telling them they no longer have a job. That kind of confrontation is painful and scary. And because of that, what feels like indecision to us can sometimes just be us avoiding that painful moment. If you know an employee is not meeting standards or causing problems for your team, it’s important to take action.

Dragging it out only prolongs the negative impact on the team and the business. That’s why I think there’s a lot of merit to Uri Levine’s no-nonsense approach. But you must also take the time to fully understand the situation and consider it from every angle – that of the employee, the team, the business, as well as the leadership.

I hope these questions give you the self-coaching you need to do just that so you can work through a difficult decision with clarity, empathy, and integrity.