Sometimes as a manager you have to let people go. It’s an ugly truth and ideally it won’t be a big part of your job, but sooner or later you will encounter a situation where a team member is not working out. Knowing how to handle that situation gracefully can make a big difference. So here are a few tips and tricks on how to know when termination is the right answer, and how to approach the process.

First off let’s be clear about one thing – termination (as opposed to layoffs or any other event that is outside of your control) should never be a surprise. Except in the most egregious cases of misconduct, it’s the end of a long process, not a knee-jerk decision because an employee had a bad day or made a mistake. That process begins in the interview which is your opportunity as a manager to find out whether a potential team member is a good fit for your team. For more on that see “They Seemed So Normal in the Interview“.

But sometimes no matter how diligent you are in your screening process, people change, situations change, and a good fit sometimes falls apart. At times this occurs because the organization is changing, while in other cases it’s because an individual’s personal goals have changed, but either way your first indication that things are out of alignment is usually an employee whose performance changes for the worse. Maybe they start showing up late to work. Maybe the quality of their work drops. Often you start to see that things take longer than they used to or that he/she just doesn’t seem to care as much anymore.

If you see these warning signs, address them quickly – sometimes a little communication and redirection can turn things around for a struggling individual. Use the motivation matrix as a discussion point to uncover why your former high performer is sinking. Seek to understand what has caused the change. Ask (without being intrusive) whether there’s a personal issue and offer resources (some companies offer employee assistance programs or other support options). In short, do everything you can to let your team member know the following 3 things:

  1. You have noticed their change in performance and you want to get them back on track because they are a valuable part of the team.
  2. There is a clear path to better performance – use the SMART goal template to create that path so there is no doubt about what he/she needs to do to get things turned around.
  3. You as their manager and the organization as a whole are ready and willing to support them in this process, but getting it done is up to them.

Communicate these guidelines clearly and then schedule a series of follow up meetings where you and the individual will check in to measure progress, discuss challenges, etc.  Don’t forget to allow this to be a two way conversation.  If the team member’s performance is dropping because they no longer feel challenged, want a different growth path, or don’t see how their current position is meeting their goals, you have an opportunity to work with them and with the organization as a whole to develop that path.  This is also a time to engage HR and your manager and let them know that you have an employee who is on a development plan.  It’s also important to document the process – what goals you put in place, what actions the employee is being asked to take, and what the results of those actions are.  From here there are three possible outcomes.

  1. They follow the process and things get better.
  2. They go find another job and quit.
  3. They continue performing poorly.

Option 1 is great, option 2 means you will have to re-hire but is not a terrible outcome, and option 3 requires that you move on to the ultimate step – termination.  As a guideline it should take 30-90 days from the time you communicate the goals and changes that are necessary to the time you can make a final decision that your team member has not made the changes you needed them to make.  If you are meeting with them weekly, that’s 4-12 opportunities where you have reviewed their work, given them clear direction, and outlined their path to success.  It should be evident to both of you at that point that things are not as they should be.

The final step in the process is to notify HR and your manager that you are planning to terminate the individual, and to complete any paperwork or processes that are required.  At that point you are ready for the toughest conversation a manager can have – telling someone that it’s not working out and they need to seek their employment elsewhere.  Here are some tips on making the conversation go smoothly and professionally.

  1. Notify HR and IT.  At the time you call the employee into your office to deliver the news, the IT department should lock their accounts, cancel their remote access to the company systems and disable any access cards or other security clearance.  No matter how amicable the termination turns out to be, it’s necessary to take these precautions to prevent concerns about unauthorized access to company data or systems.
  2. Once in your office with the employee, get straight to the point.  Don’t mince your words – this is a time to be very direct.  In the case of very new managers, there is a temptation to try and sugarcoat the situation but this only leads to confusion.
  3. Don’t spend a lot of time rehashing the decision.  At this point there’s no opportunity for the individual to change anything, so don’t spend an hour talking about all the things they did wrong to get to this point.
  4. Have a representative from HR available immediately after you deliver the news to go over the nuts and bolts of severance, COBRA, and any other termination related topics.  At this point you have done what you need to do, and it’s time to learn from the situation and move on.
  5. Communicate the change to your team.  I like to call a quick meeting and explain the situation.  Make sure everyone knows that this was the end of a process in which every effort was made to find a way for the individual to be successful, but that ultimately it didn’t work out.  Make sure people are comfortable with the fact that this was not a surprise to the person who was let go, and offer the opportunity for anyone who has concerns to meet with you one on one to address them.  If you are unable to get your team together in one place (if some work remotely), send a brief email notification and then schedule a time to call each remote team member individually.

Terminations can be stressful.  You may be well prepared and confident that you have done all the right things, but it’s still tough to look someone in the eye and tell them they are fired.    No matter how many times you do it over the course of your career it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) easy but if you follow the steps outlined above, you can at least be sure that you have done everything within your power to handle the situation in a professional manner.


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