How to Fire Someone

how to fire someone

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “Hire slow, fire fast”?

And yet, for many of us, firing somebody is really hard. And so we put it off.

I’ve heard every line in the book.

Oh he’s been here forever – we’d lose so much institutional knowledge.”

“He is excellent at his job – he’s just arrogant and uncivil to his colleagues.”

“I’m not sure I’ve really been clear – maybe I need to do a better job.”

“It just feels so cruel to fire someone and it would hurt staff morale too much.”

Or the one I hear most often.

“Our organization is like a family – I just can’t.”

Well nonprofit leader, YES YOU CAN.

It’s not a family. No one is a sacred cow. A person is not doing an ‘excellent’ job if he treats people in your organization so poorly it impacts their job satisfaction.

I know it’s tough, but today it is time to put on your big boy and big girl pants and just do it. It’s necessary for the health of your organization.

It is time to take a good hard look at the folks on your bus. You have folks (board and staff) who are rockstars. You would weep if they asked to get off the bus. There are also folks you’re just not sure about.

Here’s how to deal with the folks who really just need to get off at the next stop.

HOW TO KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO FIRE SOMEONE 

The short answer to this question is probably “yesterday or earlier.” Truly, I have never in my professional career heard a single manager utter the words, “Gee, I wish I had waited longer to fire that person.”

The longer answer will offer you more incentive.

Ask yourself this question. Pretend that I’m a donor and gave a restricted gift to cover the annual salary of the person you are considering asking to exit your bus. I ask you to tell me how that person is doing and what that person is contributing so that I can know that my investment is paying off.

Can you answer with honesty and integrity that you are investing my dollars wisely and well?

If this question just made you squirm or you imagined the conversation and realized you would not be able to look me in the eye, then fearless leader, it’s time.

Your donors and the people you serve deserve strong management, strong leadership, and the best possible people on their bus.

DO THE RIGHT THING – FIRE WITH RESPECT

First, let’s be clear. I am not a human resources professional nor a lawyer. You should have both of these skills sets on your board or in your sphere of influence to call on in these situations.

My goal here is to create a road map that may give you tools (and courage?) to do the right thing.

The main thing I want you to consider is there is a difference (sometimes) between what is technically legal to do and what is the right thing to do.

I have heard clients say, “I don’t need a lot of documentation – she is an at will employee.” I suppose that is technically true but we are talking about people here. You want to treat folks with the same degree of respect you would expect yourself if the roles were reversed.

In addition, the “technical” is only one piece of the puzzle. A person who is separated from your organization without documented efforts to communicate the need for change is not only being treated with disrespect, but that person can also cause a great deal of collateral damage – to the organization’s reputation and to yours as an organizational leader.

And unless you need to fire someone for something egregious, I’m here to tell you that it does not need to be like this.

FIVE GOOD APPROACHES TO ESCORT FOLKS OFF THE BUS

1) Lead the horse to water.

In this approach, the goal is to gently lead someone to realize it’s time to move on. “Tell me about how you are enjoying your work.” “It feels like we have been having conversations about missed deadlines a lot lately – what’s going on for you?” Ask general questions that start a conversation.

I coached a client whose Development manager needed to move on. I offered questions to my client that ultimately led this staff person to say, “I’d be fine raising money for any cause.” This led to a conversation about a lack of mission passion and soon thereafter, the staff member identified a new job and left the organization.

This approach is about teasing the truth out of a staff member who needs to get off the bus and needs to reach that conclusion and admit it to themselves and then to you.

2) Stop covering for him.

This is an important one. Here’s what it sounds like. “Well I have to do it myself because if I give the task to him, it won’t happen.” Here’s the problem. You can’t fire someone for being a poor performer if you don’t give her tasks they perform poorly.

Yes, I am aware that this is hard. You don’t think there is room for failure. But if you don’t have evidence of poor performance there are two big problems. First, it’s harder to move the person out. Second, you become resentful because the person isn’t really doing her/his job – other folks (maybe you) are covering. There’s no trust that the job will get done to your satisfaction.

So take a deep breath and give your poor performer a responsibility a very good hire should be able to knock out of the park. Be prepared for a setback and then document the setback. A few solid pieces of evidence can be enough.

3) Set clear and high (but not unrealistic) expectations.

Here’s another place where managers trip up. They LOWER their expectations of low performers. This is a variation on “covering” but with a twist. You don’t expect much so you don’t ask for much. And everyone else looks on and wonders why they are being held to higher standards. Your credibility as a manager? Not so good.

This is where annual reviews become essential. If you can’t do something wildly formal, use a job description and evaluate staff with that as your guide. Set annual goals. Visit those goals quarterly. And for your poor performers, set the goals high, as if this staff members was your star performer.

By the way, attributes count here too. This is where job descriptions fall a bit short. Include goals for how this staff person should behave in the workplace and hold everyone accountable to attributes like teamwork, generosity, responsiveness to your colleagues, diplomacy with the board. These attributes are core to excellent performance.

4) Develop a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’

Let’s say your poor performer makes a visible and problematic mistake. Use that moment as an opportunity to clarify your expectations. “I’ve noted quite a number of problems with your work and I’m not going to lie. They are very serious but I want to give you every opportunity to succeed. So I’ve spent time looking at the next 30/60/ 90 days (your call) and have come up with a set of goals the organization needs you to meet in that time. I’m confident that you will give them your best effort. We’ll meet again at 90 days and review where we are at.”

The goals should be specific and ambitious. If you are really clear that this person should be escorted off the bus, she won’t disappoint. She won’t meet the goals and you can part ways. And you can hold your head up high that you gave the employee a real chance to succeed.

5) Change the job description

This is another approach that can work as long as the role change / job change is authentic. Restructure in some way that makes sense for the organization and essentially eliminate the job your poor performer currently holds. Create a new job description for a role that your poor performer is not qualified for. Be honest about it and explain what you are doing and why and be equally honest that s/he would not be a candidate for this new position. If you are able to offer some kind of severance in this situation, all the better.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  1. Poor performers are typically unhappy in their jobs and will be quite a bit happier in a new one. Even if the short term is hard and messy.
  2. Firing someone is not mean. It does not make you a bad person.
  3. Sometimes these conversations can actually turn someone around. It does happen. Sometimes your gut isn’t exactly right and when you add more structure to the process of managing, it can be a win / win.
  4. You just need to make sure, regardless of the choices you make that your feet are firmly planted on the high road. You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and know you did right by your staff member even if it felt painful. You need to know in your heart that you did right by your stakeholders – that this staff person was keeping your work from being of the highest possible quality.

AND WHAT ABOUT YOU?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this tough subject. Is there an approach you have used that worked for all concerned? Do you disagree with what I’ve put forth? What do you think is the key to effectively escorting someone of the organizational bus while driving the bus down the “high road”?

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Leah Paley

    This post is so timely! I have been considering the big “F” for a staff member for some time now and I have been going back and forth for many of the same reasons you listed above! It feels cruel; but X is such a nice person; I don’t want them to be mad at me; etc. But right now, I don’t have the right person on the bus for this particular position and as a result, it’s hurting the organization. I really appreciate the approaches you have suggested, many of which I have implemented already. So thank you for confirming for me that I am doing the right things. The only thing missing at this point is actually pulling the plug. Thank you!!

  • Teresa Bull Little

    Thank you. This was most timely for a situation I have. It is very seldom easy to fire a person. I have fired many. I don’t like it, but I have never once regretted doing it.

  • Kathy Wojcik

    Great post Joan and right on target! As a person who works with non-profits on the people side of the organization, you’re completely correct about leaders stalling when it comes to “pulling the trigger”. Something to remember is that the poor performer who is allowed to stay, sets a bad example for other staff members – YES, they notice. Additionally, when a leader fails to take action on poor performance, moderate performers can “gear down”. “Why should I work so hard when XXXX, is getting by with doing less (without consequences)?” is what others can think. Sure they may not vocalize it to leadership, but they are thinking it and maybe even talking amongst themselves. Believe me, I’ve seen it move the organizational needle in the wrong direction! One thing for leaders to consider is most poor performers are pretty miserable in their jobs. Firing them, while tough, gives them a way out – a chance to move onto a job they would enjoy. And sure you can make the landing soft with a small severance package, if your organization has that flexibility. It’s really important to understand how your location (State) deals with firing. Not every State in the nation is linked to an “at will” employment policy.

  • Cheryl Smoot

    Right on target! I just shared my experience of terminating a 27-year employee at an AFP meeting called “Cocktails & Calamities.” The calamity resulted from the fact we had waited years too long to take this action and when we were finally given no alternative because some very serious things had happened, we did it 6 weeks before two major events assigned to this staff person were talking place. In retrospect, we knew much sooner this needed to happen, but we always gave ourselves an excuse.

  • Robin Christian

    The person I am considering terminating – Development Director – actually does an amazing technical job. She raised $118,000 OVER last fiscal year’s budget. She is an fabulius grant writer with a very high rate of success. She is also struggling with mental health issues and inappropriate behaviors that play out in the office and make staff uncomfortable. To top it all off, she is going through a difficult time in her personal life right now. She talks about what she is unhappy about (# of hours / FTE status, rate of pay) to everyone and anyone – including board members – who will listen. Or, who may be in the same room. Her unhappiness is affecting the entire staff. And yes, I have talked with her numerous times about her behavior. So, why do I feel like the performance eval I am about to give her makes me want to throw up? And, why is she still working for me? (Rhetorical question).

  • Monica Clare

    It is rarely easy to fire someone, but your article gives us all the reasons it needs to be done and done in a timely manner. I loved the example of looking a restricted donor in the eyes and telling how the person they pay for is doing. That brings it right down to the bottom line. Someone is paying for that employee to do nonprofit work. If it is not being done, action needs to take place. Excellent suggestions on how to be sure we have acted responsibly while handling this difficult task.

  • Brandy

    I am having a difficult time. We just hired someone and she is just not right. We thought we “vetted” her. She has done nothing wrong. She is a nice person, she is just not the right person. How do you let someone go that just doesn’t fit our culture.

  • Ryan

    What about letting go of problematic volunteers? Same approach?

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