How to Decide When to Fire Someone


Letting go of an employee can be difficult, and it is hard to decide when you’ve reached the point where it is best to fire someone. Sometimes the situation is clear-cut and it is easy to decide that it is time to terminate an employee, if they have committed a legal, moral or ethical infraction the decision to fire someone is swift and simple.

The more difficult decisions about whether you should let an employee go have to deal with things that are varying shades of grey. Usually the more ambiguous decision to terminate involve one of two kinds of things that make the employee no longer fit the organization, either they aren’t performing or there are personality issues. If you’re trying to decide whether to keep an employee there is a worksheet available that helps weigh the cost and the benefit of keeping the employee.

Someone may do great work and be an excellent performer, but their personality or behavior is creating waves then the cost of replacing them may be less than the cost of replacing everyone around them or the cost to the productivity of the team. Difficult employees can create a toxic environment impacting the happiness of the people around them. Up to 17% of employees have left a job because of the management or their general work environment. If an employee is damaging the morale of the team or creating emotional distress for their coworkers then it is time to fire them. Think of their behavior as a poison, the longer you leave the poison without treating it the more damage it will do and it can get to a point of the damage being irreversible.

Progressive discipline is helpful to use for more benign issues like tardiness or missed deadlines. Progressive discipline usually involves a first warning, second warning, third warning and then termination. When you begin progressive discipline you should communicate what the process is to the employee, letting them know that this is the first of three warnings and that after the third warning that they will be terminated. Period. You have to be willing to enforce the steps and terminate the employee if they have another infraction after the third warning. Also be very clear in what constitutes an infraction, for example, stating that any time the employee is more than 5 minutes past their scheduled start time they will be considered late.

Setting clear expectations is part of leadership and should be involved with the coaching and management of all employees, not just those on more formal performance improvement plans. An example of a company that does a great job setting up clear expectations of what they want from employees is Netflix. At Netflix they make it clear that they don’t believe in allowing for “brilliant jerks” – if someone is brilliant it doesn’t matter if they are not capable of being a solid team member. They also set out that they only want people who are putting in an A level of effort for both performance and effort. Effort is not enough. They publicly state that if you have only A level effort but not A level performance, you will be let go. It may seem harsh, but a company is allowed to decide what level of performance they require from their employees and they make it transparent before someone even applies what will be expected of them.

Having clear expectations that are defined for you as a leader and the organization takes the guesswork out of when it is time for an employee to leave the organization.