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Hiring and Firing: How to Know When You Need to Let Someone Go

Use this system to focus your thoughts when making a tough decision with an employee.

This story appears in the November 2020 issue of Start Up.

In an ideal world, we’d always hire the best people and never have to deal with firing anybody. But this is the real world, and sometimes people just don’t fit or work out. At some point, you’re going to face the decision on whether you need to fire someone. 

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This can be one of the most stressful decisions you face as a business owner. You don’t want to fire someone based on a knee-jerk reaction, but you also don’t want to tolerate low performance.

So how do you know it’s time to let someone go? 

There’s an easy tool to help you effectively evaluate someone’s performance and make a decision. It’s called the “Willing and Able Matrix.” 

The Willing and Able Matrix

There are two different spectrums on which people can perform their jobs — willing and able

When someone is able to do their job, it means they have the necessary skills, competence and expertise to perform their responsibilities.

When someone is willing to do their job, it means that they are aligned with the company’s mission and values, and are enthusiastic about their role.

People will fall into one of the following four categories, and if you can pinpoint where they are, you can figure out whether to let them go or give them the opportunity to improve.

Willing and Able

This is where you want everyone — bought into your culture, reflecting your values and mission, and able to fulfill their roles and responsibilities. These are your A-players.

Unwilling but Able

This person knows how to get the job done, but it doesn’t seem like it’s a priority to them. They’re not invested in the mission or invigorated about the work.

When this happens, there’s some underlying reason. Ask questions to find out what’s going on. As Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand.”

You need to have a frank conversation with this employee to figure out why this is happening. 

They might have legitimate concerns that reflect problems in your business, personal problems or they may just not be aligned with your mission. Whatever the case, you need to find out the underlying issue before casting judgment. 

Willing but Unable

This is a really enthusiastic person who is on board with everything you give them, but they just aren’t competent. The question here is, Can you get them where they need to be?

If you are dealing with this person, approach them with honesty. Ask them what can be done to close the gap between expectations and reality. Again, listen.

Sometimes you can get them where they need to be, with additional training and resources. But sometimes they just are not the right fit for the role. 

Unwilling and Unable

If an employee doesn’t have the skills to do the job well and they aren’t willing to get better, it’s time to let them go. 

The Matrix in Action

Once you’ve figured out where your struggling employee falls, it’s easier to see what area needs to be focused on. This process allows you to sit down with your employee and be open about their performance. Together, agree on a plan and a timeline to get them where they need to be.

If at the end of the timeline they still haven’t met your expectations, you’ll both know where things stand and letting them go won’t be a mystery, but the right thing to do for all parties involved.

Lastly, if you do need to let someone go, always make sure to consult with an attorney about any applicable labor laws in your area.


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