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2 Questions to Ask Before You Fire Someone

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When JT McCormick took over as the new CEO of the book publishing company I co-founded, one of the first things he did was evaluate the current team. We knew we had one or two people who probably weren't performing, but we didn't think major changes were coming.

He wanted to fire at least five of 14. Maybe more.

Of course we totally disagreed with him. How could he think that, after only dealing with them for a few weeks? Then he explained. "I use a simple but powerful test. For each person, I ask, 1. Would I enthusiastically rehire them today? 2. If not, can they be coached up to meet that standard?"

If the answer to the first question is yes, he said, you're done. If the answer to the first question is no, but the answer to the second question is yes, "then figure out exactly what they need to do better, communicate it clearly to them, and make a plan to coach them," McCormick said. "They get 90 days, and they either meet the standard or they don't."

He continues, "if the answer to both questions is no, fire them with dignity and respect, but do it as quickly as possible."

Related: 3 Ways to Hold Employees Accountable for Their Career Growth

We went through the whole team, one by one. It was one of the most painful hours of my life. He was totally right. There were a lot of people on our team we would not enthusiastically rehire. Or maybe not rehire at all.

For each of those, we discussed whether we could coach them up or not. This was much harder to figure out. McCormick had a simple process that helped, which is very similar to the hiring process he later implemented at our company. To see if someone can be coached up, ask these questions, McCormick advises:

  1. What are the skills their job requires?

  2. Have you seen evidence of these skills in their work?

  3. If yes, why are they not getting results? Where is the disconnect?

  4. If no, do you see evidence they can learn these skills with coaching?

Here's an example of how this worked with a salesperson:

  1. What are all the skills the job requires? For us, sales requires good organization, good command of book publishing information, excellent phone skills, the ability to quickly build rapport, and the ability to be authoritative, but still warm and enthusiastic.

  2. Have you seen evidence of these skills in their work? This individual has shown good organization skills and good command of book publishing information, and some ability to convey authority. His conversation and phone skills are below average, and he has not shown ability to build rapport, or convey warmth or enthusiasm.

  3. If yes, why are they not getting results? Where is the disconnect? N/A

  4. If no, do you see evidence they can quickly learn these skills? He's been coached extensively in relationships and warmth, and he has not shown much change. His calls still feel cold, mechanical and judgmental to potential authors. He doesn't seem receptive to feedback on this issue, argues with and resists the approach.  

Related: 5 Tips for Hiring the Right 'Fit' Early in Your Company's Growth

This process really made everything clear. It helped us see exactly where the non-performers were struggling, enabled us to evaluate whether we were able to coach them up, and if so, what the exact plan would be to get them up to par.

We did this with all the people we weren't excited about rehiring, and I have to be honest -- I fought almost every conclusion. I didn't really argue with the factual evaluations, because the facts weren't really under dispute, and it was clearly correct that lots of our people were not meeting our standards.

But I fought the conclusion from those facts. Why did we have to fire them? They were good people, I liked them, I wanted them to succeed. McCormick stopped me. "It's great that you care about them," he said. "But no one wins if they're in the wrong job. The company loses because the job isn't being done. They lose because they aren't developing, and they aren't contributing and being valued.

"When you make hiring mistakes, it's better to admit them and take your medicine. Hell man, everyone makes hiring mistakes. I've made a ton. It's OK. But you know why I've always had amazing teams at all my companies? Because I'm ruthless in eliminating my hiring mistakes -- either by coaching them up, or coaching them out."

He was right. The only thing worse than making a hiring mistake is to keep making that mistake because you won't admit to yourself that you made it (this is called the Sunk Cost Fallacy). Everyone loses when the wrong people are in the wrong jobs.

By the time we were done four months later, we'd fired all five people that our CEO identified early on. We made real efforts to coach up each of them, but they just did not have the skills for the specific job they were in -- which is why hiring the right people to begin with is so crucially important.

Related: The Right Way to Fire an Employee

The cool thing about this? The way our new CEO coached them was so great, four of the five were not upset at all. In fact, one wrote him an email thanking him. How he did this will be the subject of a future article.

Tucker Max

Written By

Tucker Max is the co-founder and CEO of Book In A Box, and a number-one New York Times bestselling author. He lives in Austin.