The Critical Lesson of Letting Bad Employees Go
I never used to believe in the expression, “Hire slow, fire fast.” After all, I told myself, I was an understanding, compassionate boss and I’d give my employees the time and support they needed to grow.
I also struggled with the idea that I’d be hanging them out to dry if I fired them. Without the job I had promised, how would my former employees pay their bills and take care of their families after I let them go?
That all sounds pretty naive, right?
Back then, I was the poster child for bad HR, making decisions that protected my employees, instead of my business. I’ve since come around on the subject and put certain measures into place to prevent me from failing to fire staffers when it's necessary.
But it took a series of mistakes for me to clearly understand the importance of firing fast. Here’s one example:
A while back, I hired an employee. Let’s call him Bob. His credentials were impressive, so although I had reservations about his performance during the trial period offered all new employees, I went ahead with a job offer anyway.
It was a big mistake.
While I was in Europe for two weeks, another employee gave me a call to let me know how bad things had become with Bob. Not only was he busy taking credit for other peoples’ work; he was holding meetings to complain about things not getting done, saying the shortcomings he found never would have been tolerated at bigger companies he had worked for. Of course, Bob never offered solutions to the issues he saw, only complaints.
Despite the fact that Bob was obviously creating a toxic work environment, I still had trouble firing him. I truly believed that an honest heart-to-heart talk would produce the employee I had envisioned after looking at his credentials. I was ignoring the actual person I had before me.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. In retrospect, I should not have offered Bob a job in the first place and I should have acted swiftly to terminate his employment as soon as I realized things were going awry. Based on this experience and some other mistakes, I’ve put the following guidelines in place at my company and I highly recommend you do the same:
1. Recognize when someone’s time is up.
In the case of Bob, I finally recognized a decision to fire him was necessary. His bad performance affected the entire office. But letting employees go isn’t always so clear-cut.
Any of the following scenarios may indicate that it’s time for an employer to part ways with a staffer:
A formerly productive employee has let his or her performance slip.
An employee is vocal about dissatisfaction with parts of the job or all of it, affecting overall morale.
Organizational changes make an employee’s role unnecessary or redundant.
An employee’s skills are not at the level required for the position and you don’t have the time for needed training or believe it will help.
An employee abuses company policies and privileges by being excessively late, taking too many vacation days or stealing items from the office.
An employee isn’t motivated about developing his or her skills to grow with the company.
2. Prepare for the firing
As soon as you notice one of these signs or other clues, document your concerns. If necessary, gather statements from other employees and make notes about any past conversations you’ve had with the employee about your concerns. Documentation is the key to protecting yourself from a wrongful termination lawsuit.
If you intend to part ways on good terms, you might also want to think about severance benefits. Unless written into your employment offers, severance packages are rarely mandatory but can contribute significantly to an employer's reputation.
3. Take full responsibility.
If you have to fire an employee, this is usually not the employee’s fault. It's often yours for making a bad hire. That’s painful to realize, but the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can improve your hiring, onboarding and termination processes (and the sooner you can avoid wasting $50,000 or more on bad hires).
Immediately after the termination, brainstorm about what you can do better the next time. Was there a point in the hiring process when you didn’t trust your gut? Did you fail to do due diligence? This type of self-reflection is rarely fun but it’s an important part of maintaining profitability.
Do you hire slow and fire fast? Share a hiring or firing mistake you’ve made in the past below.
Eric Siu is the CEO of digital marketing agency Single Grain. Single Grain has worked with companies such as Amazon, Uber and Salesforce to help them acquire more customers. He also hosts two podcasts: Marketing School with Neil Patel and Growth Everywhere, an entrepreneurial podcast where he dissects growth levers that help businesses scale.