Seven Helpful Ways to Think About Firing a Difficult Team Member

   Even in today’s tight labor market, it is sometimes very clear that an employee is on the way to losing their job unless they significantly change their behavior. When this happens, it’s especially important for a leader to steady themselves, keep emotions under control, and model thoughtful behavior for the rest of the team. 

This kind of situation came up recently for one of my clients; following are the seven important things we discussed attending to before actually beginning the challenging process of termination.

Select candidates carefully and orient them thoroughly to prevent problems later. The hiring and orientation process is Phase Zero. Someone who seems aligned from the beginning may be easier to deal with and have a better chance of success than someone whose stated experience or way of handling events trigger a sense of caution or alarm. In my client’s case, there were warning signs during the interview that this team member might not feel fully responsible for their own behavior or take responsibility with their team and would need more direction and closer supervision than other team members.

Differentiate between the employee’s work output and their conduct. You may have problems with either or both, but it’s more likely that the team member can improve when you keep the issues separate. When it’s a performance issue, you can teach or reteach skills, apprentice the individual to a more successful colleague, provide additional background and education, etc. But when the problem is behavioral, you have to be explicit about the behaviors you’ve noticed and the negative impact they have on the team, customers, or you. It always feels a little bizarre to tell another adult that they don’t know how to behave. It doesn’t seem natural to have to do that, so you may be more avoidant about giving behavioral feedback and let the situation build up.

Make sure you’ve provided clear expectations and help to meet them. Catch problems as quickly as possible so you have the greatest chance to help the employee improve their behavior and performance. When you see warning signs, deal with the situation promptly in a straightforward, dispassionate way. Offering support helps them as an individual and also helps you as the manager, because if they still don’t improve, you’ll know you did everything you could when it comes to cutting ties with them. 

For example, one of the prompts my client used was to note the inappropriate behavior and offer a substitute: “Oh, this is a behavior that we don’t care for here. We prefer X. Can I help you try that?” When you’re explicit in this way, it’s harder for a disgruntled employee to put up the defense that you weren’t clear and didn’t tell them what was expected, so how could they possibly be held responsible?

Plan—and write down—what needs to be said as preparation. If you do need to fire someone, this is no time to be casual, rely on memory, or assume you’ll find the right words in the moment. It helps to diagram the issues that need handling. In my client’s case, we separated the description of the employee’s disruptive behavior from the negative impact it was having, specified what needed to change, and outlined what the consequences would be if it didn’t change. 

The sequence played out like this: “We’ve noticed this behavior. It’s having the following impacts on your colleagues and the organization. That’s why we’re pointing it out to you and offering our support — so that you can change it if you’d like to. Otherwise, it may not be appropriate for you to continue working here.” The more specific you can be, and the more simply and quickly you can cover the points, the greater the likelihood that they’ll actually absorb the gravity of the situation.

Keep your body calm to lessen everyone’s reactions, including your own. Once you  go through your notes on what to say either in your mind or out loud, think about ways to stay even-keeled during the delivery. Will it help you to sit facing the person or side by side? Can you keep both feet on the ground and your hands on the table in front of you? If you think your hands might shake a little, will it stabilize you to clasp them together? 

Try to think of the employee with kindness, as a good person who isn’t catching on for some reason, or as if now is just not the right time for them here in your organization, although there might have been a right time or there even could still be one. Viewing the situation as one that the two of you are going through together will reduce the chances of you dumping any anger or resentment on them.

Know the procedures for termination. Be prepared to discuss what termination will mean, such as whether there will be a notice period or it’ll be immediate, what the severance will be, and how health insurance or other benefits will be handled. This way, the employee will understand what’s going to happen and be prepared to take care of next steps. 

Reflect afterwards. What could have gone better in any part of the relationship? Did you convey all the necessary facts? Did you manage yourself well? It’s appropriate to feel upset or even guilty, because it’s a serious thing to separate someone from their income, work image, and work community. In particular, check to see if you were operating out of care for all parties or if you let a righteous tone or stance slip in.

In addition, always confirm with your counsel or human resources expert to make sure you’re meeting all legal requirements. And consider having someone else with you to conduct any of these conversations, as a way to make sure everything is covered, give you courage, present a united leadership front, and be able to review with each other afterwards how you did.

It’s almost never easy to come to the decision to fire an employee and then manage the process from end to end. But with forethought and consideration, you can handle it as smoothly — and as rarely — as possible.

Onward and upward—

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