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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Lessons I Learned From Firing Someone

As a manager, I’ve always dreaded saying the words, “Can I talk to you in my office?”—probably even more than the employee who’s on the other side of the request. The phrase is eerily similar to the relationship-ending “We need to talk”—as soon as those words come out, you know the conversation isn’t going to be a good one.

So, when I used that exact phrase to begin a tough conversation with one of my employees, he instantly knew something wasn’t right. And it wasn’t; I was terminating his employment. It was my first time firing an employee—and as I delivered the news and watched him leave the building, I didn’t feel the way I thought I would. In fact, I learned three unexpected lessons that day, and it’s influenced the way I’ve managed my team ever since.

1. Getting Rid of a “Problem Employee” Isn’t a Relief

For several months, I’d been having trouble with this particular employee. I’d had several conversations with him, pointing out where he could improve and asking him to do a better job with his work—but I was at my wit’s end. With so many other superstar workers on my team, I didn’t want to deal with the mediocre work from this problem employee.

So when I fired him, I expected that my life would instantly become easier. As it turns out, I was in for a pretty rough couple weeks. I had to immediately sort through all of his work and assign it to other members of the team (who weren’t exactly grateful for the extra tasks), and—to make things even more complicated—it was almost impossible to tell what had and hadn’t been done on each project. I had to dig through files and data to find the information, and I had to do it quickly—before any “loose ends” turned into a screaming client.

Then, I had to face the reality of replacing him. It’s a well-known fact that it costs a company more to hire a new employee than retain a current worker, and that manifests itself in the effort it takes to hire a new employee, too. Not only did I have to spend time interviewing, but I also had to allow for a lengthy training period for the new employee before he could actually take on any work.

Now, I’m not saying it would have been better to keep an underperformer on my team for the sake of convenience—but it’s important to consider the trade-off. And above all else, it’s absolutely essential that you develop a transition plan before you let someone go so that you’re not left scrambling.

2. Prepare for Everything

Before entering the corporate world, I had no idea what a big to-do it was to fire someone. After speaking with the employee in the presence of HR, I had to follow him to his desk, watch him pack his things, and escort him out of the building.

After such a public ordeal, I wasn’t surprised when the murmurs started—my employees wanted to know what happened. You could see the worry in their eyes and hear their hushed, frenzied whispers: What did he do? Did he see it coming? Who’s next? Some even dared to approach my desk and ask, “Did he quit or get fired?” “Was it because he missed that deadline last week?”

As a new manager, I had no idea how I was supposed to answer these lingering questions: Was I supposed to lie? Be scathingly honest? Avoid the subject? No matter what, I knew that the way I addressed the situation would impact the overall culture of my team, including the way they worked and they way they viewed me as a leader. In the end, HR dictated that I couldn’t give anyone many specifics, but I tried to assure my team that we would move forward with a positive mindset and continue working hard to serve our clients.

The lesson here is this: You have to have a firm, well thought-out, and comprehensive plan before you proceed. From anticipating how you’ll approach the individual employee (including the awkward small talk you’ll make as you walk him out of the building), to how you’ll broach the subject with the rest of the team, it’s not smart to just make it up as you go. Talk with your boss or HR representative to figure out the best way to handle the situation.

3. It’s Not “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

After my employee had packed up and left, I imagined I’d be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Not a fan of confrontation, I was looking forward to a relaxing week sans awkward discussions about performance issues and the constant pressure from my boss to catch and fix his mistakes.

But it wasn’t long after his departure that the realization hit me: He was going home to tell his wife and kids that he’d just been fired. The termination didn’t just affect him—it impacted an entire family. All of a sudden, I had this heavy guilt on my shoulders, reminding me that I was the source of that family’s new struggle. I worried that I’d jumped to conclusions too quickly, that I hadn’t done enough or given him the chance he deserved. And that hit me incredibly hard.

So following the incident, I had to take a hard look at my management style. Was I providing enough direct and specific coaching? Did I define my expectations clearly enough? Was the source of the problem a lack of effort on his part, or a lack of training on my part? From that point on, I decided that I would no longer have those questions in my mind if and when I fired another employee—because I would make sure I did everything in my power to help him or her succeed before I resorted to the worst-case scenario of termination.

Firing an employee is never going to be enjoyable—but unlike many other dreaded tasks that you try get out of the way as soon as possible, terminating someone on your team deserves a lot of thought, preparation, and empathy. If you learn from these lessons, firing still won’t be easy—but you’ll get through it with just a little more peace of mind.

Photo of woman firing employee courtesy of Shutterstock.