Thinking about firing someone? Read this first

Ghina Fahs
March 14, 2023
Thinking about firing someone? Read this first
Core HR
Employee experience
Best practices

Putting an end to a relationship with an employee—or, to put it more bluntly, firing them— is surely one of the least favorable parts of managing people, but it inevitably comes with the territory and responsibilities of a manager. It’s hardly ever an easy message to deliver or receive, and if decisions like that are made hastily, the result can do more harm than good for the company. Research by SHRM suggests that replacement costs can be as high as 50-60% of an employee’s annual salary, with overall costs ranging anywhere from 90-200%.

Termination is a conclusion that shouldn’t be reached abruptly, through heightened emotions, or without first taking several factors into consideration. This is where it’s important for HR to chime in and shine a light on the available options that don’t necessarily lead to termination. Because recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and training a new employee can be very costly—and because recruiting can take time—firing should always be considered a last resort, provided the employee’s performance and behavior improve as a result.

Jeanne Knight, a former HR director for tech companies, emphasizes the importance of becoming involved before termination becomes necessary, “through proactive coaching and training with managers, we can help them understand that they shouldn’t get to the point where they want to fire the person today. If they come to us when they first suspect a problem, we can help them manage the process.” Otherwise, if termination is the only way to go, HR can help guide the conversation to mitigate or minimize any potential damage.

In this article, we’ll be highlighting some useful nuggets of advice on the subject, ones that are sure to come in handy when you start to get that inkling that you might need to fire someone.

Reflect on some questions and seek input before approaching your employee

To figure out whether or not the feeling you’re getting is fleeting or here to stay, ask yourself some questions that can help provide clarity.

For example, “have I really given them a chance before coming to this decision?”, “if the person unexpectedly told me they were leaving, how much would I fight to keep them?” or “if I could go back in time and rehire someone for that same position, would I hire them again?” Posing these different questions can help you gauge how much wiggle room you’re willing to give them before resorting to termination.

Furthermore, don’t wait too long before you reach out to HR—it’s best to loop them in as soon as you start seeing early signs of performance issues. Partner with them throughout the process to ensure company policies are followed and that you aren't creating any liability issues for the company. HR will help you with valuable guidance on best practices and healthy ways to approach the situation, providing you with the right language and wording to use, as well as assisting you with setting clear goals, objectives, and performance expectations.

Identify the root cause

Take into consideration where the employee’s weaknesses could be coming from, and subsequently, whether or not you can help with a solution. This is the time to approach your employee with full transparency. This could also be a good opportunity to make them aware of your concerns and let it be known that their performance is lacking.

Oftentimes, people deal with personal issues of all kinds that may or may not get in the way of their work, depending on how tough their situation is and whether or not they’re equipped with the right tools to deal with it. And a lot of employees don’t share these issues unless they’re deliberately asked.

It would be helpful to schedule a one-on-one with your employee to create space for an honest discussion that could encourage them to reveal the root cause. Use that private time to check in on their wellbeing, including their mental and physical health, family matters, or personal problems. And try not to skip over this part—studies show that 47% of employees admit that their personal problems sometimes have an effect on their workplace performance.

Following that, check in on where their head is with work—are they comfortable with their co-workers? Are there areas they need help with?

Reassess whether or not they fully understand all their responsibilities and if they’ve received adequate training. Likewise, ask yourself whether you’ve made your expectations as clear as they can be, if the workload is too heavy, if you’re providing enough feedback, and so on. Their response, and whether or not they take accountability and acknowledge their shortcomings, should be very telling on its own.

Consider possible solutions in response to the main cause

If the root cause is a personal or health-related issue, you might want to suggest they take some personal time off or schedule sessions with a therapist that can be reimbursed by the company. Sometimes all it takes to get them back on track are genuinely helpful gestures or languages of appreciation (link to appreciation article) that remind them they’re supported and that they don’t need to face their problems alone.

If the root cause is work-related, you can give them some options to remind them that they don’t need to feel stuck. What could benefit them the most? Is it reskilling and redeployment? Or a Performance Improvement Plan that includes resources for upskilling? Assess which path is more suitable and accessible for them, and take it from there.

Keep them motivated with a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

A Performance Improvement Plan, or PIP, is an effective method for addressing and improving an individual employee's performance issues. Collaborate with HR to set some clear objectives related to what needs improvement. This will add some structure to the process, making it realistic and measurable.

Once that part is done, sit down with your team member to set some goals and expectations; ask them which parts of their work they enjoy the most and consider how you can bring them more of that. As a part of their PIP, you can offer to sponsor them for an online course or certification, or propose different methods to help them develop their skills and further their learning, such as auditing meetings or shadowing other team members on certain tasks.

It’s a great opportunity for your employee to level up their skills and show you what they are truly capable of. By implementing a PIP, you can work with the employee to address any performance deficiencies and ultimately improve the overall productivity and success of the team. Just make sure you specify goals and expectations and set a timeframe for improvement, or a date by which the changes need to take effect—and don’t forget to give them the support and resources they need to crush their goals!

Newspaper with text Performance Evaluation with a pen and glass

Practice being a good coach

Furthermore, if you feel like the employee is accountable, coachable, and motivated to stay, coaching them back on track will not only save you both the hassle of unnecessary termination, but it’ll also be a great opportunity for you to check your coaching skills, which you’ll likely need to do because coaching is not as simple as it seems. A lot of managers happen to overestimate their coaching abilities—HR professionals and managers don’t agree on the coaching abilities of the latter, as seen in this report by Betterworks.

Being a good coach involves giving and receiving informal feedback; knowing when to praise, and when to point out any shortcomings, but doing it all with the intention of helping them succeed. Share your knowledge, provide verbal support and counseling, practice actively listening, and give constructive feedback. Your employees need this kind of communication to understand how they are doing, especially when they’ve been informed that their performance is not up to par. If they’re given the right time and support to make the shift into a better place, termination can be kept at bay.

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