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10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Letting an Employee Go

10 Questions

10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Letting an Employee Go
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About to fire an employee? Hold on just a second.

The fact that an employee isn't performing according to your expectations may not be his problem, but yours. Every time you are tempted to let someone go, use it as an opportunity to look in the mirror and learn. Somehow you either hired or promoted someone who failed to perform up to expectations. You should ask yourself: how did this happen and how can I keep it from happening again?

Here are some questions an employer should ask before letting an employee go.

1. Does the employee know what he's supposed to be doing?
This is the first question to ask when an employee is not performing up to expectations, suggests Gary Bradt, a Greensboro, N.C.-based executive coach and author of The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity (McGraw-Hill, 2007). Leaders often think they have been clear in setting performance expectations when, in fact, they have not. "Telling someone what to do is not enough. The only way you can be sure an employee knows what you expect is when they clearly state in their own words what your performance expectations for them are, and clearly state how they will be measured," he says. "Often this is where the problem lies, so make sure to check this box off before you do anything else."

2. Does this person have the skills and tools to do the job?
Maybe your employee knows what is expected, but lack the skills to do the job. In that case, make sure you provide the right tools and training (soft skills or technical) to help him get the job done, Bradt says. If you don’t have the time or budget to provide such training, make sure you do a thorough job up front to match a person’s skills and abilities to the demands of the job. "Asking a person to perform a job where they lack the necessary tools is poor leadership," he adds.

3. Is this a motivation problem, and can I fix it?
Providing training to help an employee improve is doable, but when an employee has completely "checked out", there may be nothing left to fix. "Even the best training can’t repair an unmotivated, disengaged employee," says Eric Chester, Golden, Colo.-based employee engagement expert and author of Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012). "So before cutting them loose, determine if this is a fixable situation."

4. Is there a problem with the hiring process?
Sometimes we blame the person when we should be looking at the process, says David Goldsmith, a Manlius, N.Y.-based leadership and management expert and author of Paid to Think: A Leader's Toolkit for Redefining Your Future (BenBella Books, 2012). He suggests taking a closer look at your hiring practices, rethinking candidates based on their talents and skills rather than their job titles, considering past accomplishments regardless of current circumstances and making improvements in selection methodologies to find the best candidates.

5. How good is my onboarding process?
When you bring people into the organization, do you orient them to the culture and the way things are done, or expect them to figure it out on their own? Do you tell them who they can approach if they have questions, or give them a process to follow when they are not sure what to do? "You can save a lot of time and money by giving newer employees the support they need to be successful and productive from day one, versus wasting time and energy trying to figure out ‘how things work around here,'" Bradt says.

6. Are my expectations too high?
Before you hired the person you are now ready to fire, you had an expectation in mind. Was it realistic? Did you hire someone thinking they would be a clone of yourself? "Perhaps you set the bar so high that no one could clear it, and now you’re acting out of frustration," Chester says. He suggests revisiting your initial expectations. Remind yourself that the replacement employee is not going to be you, either.

7. Have I given the employee specific behavior-based feedback on his performance?
Telling an employee how she can improve is a challenge for many bosses. However, without appropriate, specific feedback on what is working and what is not, improvement is not likely. "For example, imagine hitting golf balls on the driving range to improve your swing but having no idea where each shot went. How would you know to adjust?" Bradt says. Employees need specific behavior-based feedback to be able to improve their performance, and it’s your job to provide it.

8. Am I rewarding the right behaviors?
Some companies say they want teamwork but they reward individual contributors. Some say they want to minimize internal competition but then set up reward systems likes trips and giveaways that do exactly that. "If you are not getting the behavior you want from your employees, challenge your pay and reward system to make sure it is reinforcing the behavior you say you want," Bradt says. "The people you want to let go may only be doing what the system is rewarding them to do."

9. Have I been too "hands-off" during the process or project at hand?
Goldsmith advises leaders to stay in the loop and make themselves available throughout a process or project. "That’s not to say that leaders should hover over people, but they need to be present physically, virtually or technologically," he says. And if they’re not available 24/7, they should at least be in touch at progress-point intervals when their employees can easily reach them to ask questions, seek guidance and get the support needed to keep their project on track. Without such guidance, the employee may be doomed to fail.

10. Could this person succeed in another position?
"Imagine if Peyton Manning was asked to play defensive tackle, or if Mick Jagger was asked to sing opera," Chester suggests. "They’d be in the right line of work, but they’d be out of position." Maybe that failing dental assistant would make an exceptional receptionist. Or perhaps the guy who can’t seem to close a sale for you has an incredible talent for writing promotional web copy. Before you fire someone, ask yourself if you’ve placed that person in the role that best suits his natural strengths.

Lisa Girard is a freelance writer who covers topics as diverse as golf fashion, health and beauty, the hardware industry and small business interests. She also has been Senior Apparel Editor for PGA Magazine for more than a decade.

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