How do you know when its time to let go of an employee?

By Roselyn Onalaja | 7 min read
12th March 2019
How do you know when its time to let go of an employee?

One of your duties as a manager or business owner is not just to handle tough or non-performing employees, but also to let them go when justified. While handing a sack letter to an employee is never a pleasant task, it's a necessity if you want to have a thriving business.  Instead of letting these employees overstay their welcome, with serious repercussions to your business, keep a lookout.

I can't think of a worse part about being a manager than having to let people go. Anyone who tells you they don't mind firing people is either lying or sadistic. It's awful. Whether a person is incompetent or not, a bad cultural fit, mean spirited, redundant … whatever … when you fire someone you're causing them a great deal of pain and directly impacting their lives and the lives of their families.

The fact that you're struggling with it only means you're human.  If you search deeper, you'll find that many times, one is always searching for reasons not to let someone go; looking for any hint or sign of hope you can use to justify hanging on a little longer. You find yourself spending weeks pondering the decision, weighing the pros and cons, trying to justify not doing it.  At this point, you are probably pondering on these:

  • Maybe I haven't given her enough coaching.
  • Maybe I haven't provided him clarity of his role and objectives.
  • Maybe with some extra help she can get better?
  • How would people look at me for hiring the person only to now be letting him go?
  • What impact will this have on the morale of the team?

These are all legitimate questions, and they take over the mind for the days and weeks leading up to the decision point. And then, when the hard choice is finally made, there is a lot of worry about it. The sad truth is, when you look back on most of these situations, you can say with confidence you waited too long to act. But the real question is, "how do you know for sure when it's finally time to fire someone?"  If you notice one or more of these following signs then it's best to fire this employee sooner rather than later.

1. No call/No show

As a leader, you need to have empathy. If an employee lost the mother or father in a sudden and tragic accident the last thing that is one the mind is to call out of work. However, if this happens a second time, then maybe it's time to get a little suspicious. After all, absenteeism ends up costing you and your business both time and money since you are asking other team members to pick up the slack.  You should have a policy in place that addresses guidelines for time off and handling last minute absences; make this policy known to your employees from the get-go.

2. Productivity is down

To be fair, there are times when productivity can decrease. Sometimes a project has become larger and more time-consuming than initially planned. That doesn't mean that your employees are slacking or lack the skills needed to be successful. It just means that they're swamped.  However, if you have one specific employee who keeps handing in assignments past the deadline then that's an obvious red flag that the productivity has declined. Other signs include work requiring several revisions, constantly asking co-workers for assistance, or taking up too much of your time, then it's time to let that employee go.

3. Stirs the pot

This individual can do some serious damage to the workplace if left unattended.  Such people spread rumors, pit colleagues against each other, incite indiscipline by undermining management or bad-mouthing a supervisor. If you have an employee who won't embrace company initiatives, quibbles about work requirements and gets a kick out of causing trouble, then it's probably time for you to part ways.

4. Can't handle change

Change is inevitable, especially at a fast-moving company. Employees need to be comfortable with change and eager to improve abilities; it is important that teams keep their skills growing at pace with the company.  This can actually be tough when you have a hard-working employee who is responsible and fits the culture of your company. If unfortunately, an employee can no longer perform at a high level because the pace is too fast for him/her, then it's time to move on to somebody who can.

5. Argumentative/unpredictable

As a leader, you want to encourage innovation and have employees who will change you and the status quo.  However, if there's an employee who is always starting arguments with you, their colleagues, or even customers, then that's a pretty good sign that they are capable of having a major blowup. This type of behavior isn't just frightening, it also creates an uncomfortable work environment for your other employees. Simply put, that person has to go before things become too hostile.

6. They're not trying to improve

Let's say that you have an employee who is lacking in certain skills and the person does not make any effort to rectify his/her mistakes or improve self in the specific area, then it's probably in your best interest to show the employee the way out.

7. They're placeholders

When you first started business, you needed to hire whomever from wherever you could until things took off. Sometimes you might have had to bring in some friends and family members during the early stages of your business. The thing is, if they don't have the skills or experience to help take your business to the next level then they are just placeholders.

Taking this decision against such people could be extremely tough since it has nothing to do with their work ethics or personality. Hopefully they'll understand that it's an essential move you have to make in order to help your business grow.

8. Customers and vendors are complaining

Did you know that 86% of customers would stop doing business with a company because of a bad customer service experience?  Even more troubling is that a dissatisfied customer will tell between 9-15 people about their experience.  In other words, you have to keep your customers happy. If you're receiving complaints about an employee from customers because of sub standard customer service, then you have to let that person go.  The same thing can apply to vendors. Who would want to do business with an organization that has rude or apathetic employees?

9. Team morale is hurt more by them staying than going

This is a line of thinking not enough managers consider. We talk a lot about the negative impact firing someone can have on a team but we rarely discuss the negative impact of indefinitely carrying incompetent or disruptive employees. There comes a point when letting a person go can actually have a net positive impact on team morale. 

Having your own success consistently hampered by another person's incompetence could be frustrating. If 90% of your teammates are working hard, collaborating effectively and producing great result, what message are you sending by supporting the 10% who are doing the opposite? If you're not careful, you can create a situation where the culture you're building actually drives good people away while building a safe haven for negative contributors.

My advice to managers is to ask yourself this question whenever you're thinking about whether or not it's time to let someone go: "If I'm honest with myself, is it possible team morale would actually go up if I let this person go?" If the answer is "yes", it's time to make the hard decision.

10. I can't honestly imagine them being great one day

As a manager your job is to create an environment and put people on a path to becoming great at what they do. That's what building a great team is - each member getting better every day until they're masters at their craft. When you have a team full of masters, you'll be great. With that perspective in mind, one of the key signs it's time to let someone go is when you can't honestly envision a person being great at their role or any other available role on the team. If there is no realistic path to greatness - no matter how long or challenging it may have to be - then its time.

My advice to managers is to get more active in building and measuring each employee's path to greatness at whatever function they perform for the company. When you create this mindset for you and your team, it will help you know when it's time to let someone go. Keep asking yourself, "Can I honestly imagine a scenario where this person can be truly great in their role or any role on my team?" If the answer is "no" it's time to move on.

11. They've shown a pattern of bad judgement or questionable morals

This is a pretty easy one for me. If I can't trust a person, I can't have them on my team. You'd be surprised how many managers actually don't feel this way or at least seem willing to carry people who show bad judgment or questionable ethics just because they are smart or high performers. The fastest path to a toxic team is to support people you can't trust. When I say "trust" in this context I'm referring both to a person's morale decision making and logical decision making. If you have got someone on your team who is demonstrating dicey moral judgement - that's a no brainer. But it's also pretty clear cut when you've got a well-intentioned person who consistently makes business decisions that seem unjustifiable by logic or common sense. If I can't trust a person to make basic, sound decisions, there is just no starting point to build from.

My advice to business owners and managers is to analyze decision making as critically as you analyze outcomes. Sometimes we use positive outcomes as a justification for questionable logic or morals. Ask yourself, "Does this person follow a consistent, logical and ethical path for making decisions?" If the answer is no, it's time to let them go. In my experience there is no recovery from this.

Letting people go is difficult. It's probably the worst thing we have to do as managers. It can have devastating impact on people's lives so you need to take it extremely seriously. But in my experience, more often than not, we allow our emotional revulsion to the idea prolong what needs to be done.

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