How to Fire Someone (Well, Almost)

Questions This Guidance Answers: 
  • How do I make a poor performer better?
  • How do I prepare to fire someone?
  • How do I discuss my team member's poor performance?

Ok, let's get this out of the way ... this is not *really* a show about how to fire people. Rather, today we discuss how to take a poor performer and turn them into a good performer. And when, despite your best efforts, you are not successful in helping the person turn around, how to be in a position where you can fire the person.

You may not feel good about it (that's ok, you shouldn't!), but you will be confident in your decision and be able to put your head down on your pillow and sleep at night.

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I can't help but think that the "well

I can't help but think that the "well almost" part of the title was based on my note about the managing your manager show. It probably had nothing to do with it but it still made me smile!

Anyway, great show tonight (how'd you put such an expansive topic into such a tight spot). I want to add a couple of thoughts about what I practice. I dislike the use the term "fire" and even more dislike the use of the phrase, "fire you" when giving feedback (in steps 5 or 6). A couple of years ago I started telling my managers that we don't "fire someone". I clarified by saying that we "terminate a person's employment" which I believe is a more accurate phrase (certainly more than saying you have "terminated" a person!).

More than just vernacular, this has helped change the way managers think about ending someone's employment. Just as you said, it is a big deal to do so and we, as managers, need to make sure we have done everything within our power to try and help the employee.

Last thought. I loved your comments about HR. I learned a long time ago that it is typically the manager that has not truly coached his employee that worries and complains about HR. A wise mentor told me early in my career, when I wanted to "fire" someone, that I needed to give it one more chance, that HR needed to see that I was truly working with the person. When I started to complain he asked me the simple question I have never forgot, "What do want more? For him (the poor performing employee) to be gone or for him to start meeting expectations?"

I hadn't thought of it that way until then but think about it often all these years later.

My mantra now... oftentimes we lose very little by giving someone that "one more chance". We exhaust every possible option first before terminating employment or we get the desired behavior, either way, we can sleep at night.

Okay, last real thought. One of the greatest managers I ever had told me many, many years ago that management was nothing more than allocating resources and eliminating obstacles. I truly believe that is what I do in it's simplest form. Giving feedback and coaching and having one-on-ones are all very specific examples of eliminating obstacles.

Great show tonight!

Maj, The "Well Almost" part of the


The "Well Almost" part of the title had EVERYTHING to do with your previous note! What would feedback be if we didn't listen to it? :-)

Thanks for your other comments as well ... all good points!


The Forum, I have a feedback related

The Forum,

I have a feedback related question that is probably a bit off topic for this cast, but I'll ask it anyway because it is hot for me right now. I was told by an employee from another department in our organization about an incident that ocurred between her and one of my employees about three months ago. Basically, she reported that my employee was not accommodating to a reasonable (in my opinion) request she made of him. When he stated his dissent to her, he did it in a way that was somewhat demeaning to her, and embarassed her in front of some bystanders. When I heard about the incident, my immediate thought was that if it had happened more recently my action with him would probably be a written counseling (I feel like it was a rather big deal). However, I have heard no other complaints on this employee since the time this incident happened, and actually he has been a model citizen during this period. I definitely want to address it with him, but I'm not exactly sure how to handle it at this point in regard to the time that has passed. Basically, I want to address it in a way that will encourage more effective behaviour in the future, but part of me wants him to sting a little bit too. Any advice from Mike, Mark, or another "dear listener" is much appreciated.


Craig, I recently went through this

Craig, I recently went through this with a manager in my group (almost exactly the same). The feedback came a couple of months after the incident but the person in the other department was very upset. I decided to discuss it with the manager as a "I thought you'd like to know" conversation. I also said how dissapointed I was to hear about it and asked what she could have done differently. I did mention that had I received the information two months prior we would be having a different sort of talk. More than anything I wanted her to hear about it from me and not from HR if the other employee complained. She was resistant to the feedback at first but by the end of the day she came back to me and said she was going to apologize to the other employee.

I think there is some risk in bringing up old stuff like that but have found that being up front about that risk with the person I'm giving feedback to helps. The feedback was meant to drive reputation damaga control (her's) rather than just simply behavior change.

Anyway, there's my two (or three cents).


Maj - Thanks for your reply. This

Maj -

Thanks for your reply. This is exactly the plan I have in mind. The one thing about this situation that holds some redemption is that since the incident happened 3 months ago, catching advice off this site for a day or two before I respond probably won't make the problem worse. I appreciate you.


Craig, Remember, you're just giving


Remember, you're just giving "feedback" ... it doesn't have to "sting" to be effective. You're simply giving the individual feedback on how his behavior affected others and others' perception of him.

Since this is not a recurring issue, my personal preference would to give him the feedback in an "affirming" manner (i.e., "You exhibited this particular behavior in the past and here were the results [bad] ... since then, you've exhibited this different behavior and here's the results [good]. Thanks for making the change. Oh, by the way, what do you think you can do differently now in terms of your relationship with [person previously wronged]?"


Craig and Maj: I'm intrigued by your

Craig and Maj:

I'm intrigued by your comments on this "topic." I find this to be one of the most common questions I receive from my directs. "At what point has too much time passed for me to address an employee's poor performance or behavior?" In general, I think it depends on the consequence of the poor performance or behavior. If this is the final straw in the process, I want the discussion to happen immediately after the "event." The fact that you learned of it 3 months later makes it difficult in my mind to let the person go. This just becomes another piece of the puzzle. Likely, if this person as a history of this behavior, they will provide you another reason very soon. Of course, you want to make sure you have gone through the process of coaching to satisfy HR and solidify the integrity of your decision. The key, three months later, is to provide feedback to: 1. let the person know of the situation so there are no suprises later and 2. hold that person accountable for their actions. To me, worst case, the person gets bent out of shape over the time that has passed, but you've still made your point that the behavior is unacceptable while making another deposit into the evaluation bucket of this person's performance.


Folks- Regarding Craig's post about


Regarding Craig's post about "delayed feedback," here are my thoughts.

Yes, feedback - adjusting or affirming - is ideally given as close as possible to the behavior it's addressing. So, if it's been 3 months, and it's not a significant negative, and there doesn't seem to be other instances or concerns, it's fine to let this situation go.

That's what I would do, while noting the comment. If I choose to forgo delivering feedback on this situation, I'd never bring it up later - I hate that.

Two other points. First, it sounds like everyone is making feedback into a big deal. It's NOT. Done well, by a manager who works at it, it's the equivalent of "Good Morning." So, if in a slightly different situation, I chose to give the feedback, it would be done in a very relaxed way, with even a hint of off-handedness.

Finally, it's always valuable to consider the source. My thinking is, "why didn't she address it?" Feedback from many managers is perceived VERY differently coming from a boss than a peer or some person in another org.

Next time, ask her if she'd be willing to give the feedback. If she hesitates, ask politely why you should give the feedback if she wouldn't. (This assumes she and he are peers).

Good comments - glad everyone is thinking!


Thanks for the show - good stuff! I

Thanks for the show - good stuff!

I have a question about the activities recommended through the coaching process. Would you recommend your employees do it in their own time or company time? The Toastmasters example would have to be done in the employees own time, but what about the Presentation for Dummies example?

And finally I'd just like to make a comment that the process outlined in your show would be very difficult for a small business. Having to go 3 to 6 months extra to give a person every chance may be financially very difficult.

Appreciate the show - thanks guys.

Jon- On COMPANY TIME. I have seen


On COMPANY TIME. I have seen it done both ways, and this is the only way that works. No offense to an org, but if you tell people development is important to the org and then give them no time for it, people think, "hey, he thinks I'm stupid." People know that what the company spends time on, asks people to spend time, and checks on, are the things that the company REALLY thinks are important.

Toastmasters doesn't have to be done on the employee's time. Have them find out where the local chapter(S) are, and then figure out when they want to go. Let them go for a long lunch once a week... most big cities have multiple chapters, and most meet during a particular day of the week at lunch. (Okay, maybe somebody thinks that that is personal time - I don't). Or, let them come in late or go home early. If it's TM, it'll be worth it. It works.

Presentaiton for Dummies: Tell them to schedule a half hour every other day to read it AT THEIR DESK, and practice on their office PC. They'll love you for it. When someone questions this (they won't, but just in case) politley say you told him to. They will think you're a minor deity.

It's no different for a small business, in my opinion. It's easier to hire for a small business (less variables), it's easier to give feedback (less variables), and it's easier to coach (proximity, less variables). If you're can't afford to do this for someone you might hire, I'd recommend getting better at interviewing/hiring processes, or don't hire. Your other employees either better be very good or well paid (which the financial argument you propose would seem to negate.)

"Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong..." (USMA Cadet Prayer). ;-)


Your comment about firing someone as a

Your comment about firing someone as a reflection of a managers failure really struck a negative cord wtih me. First, understand that I agree firing someone is a last resort. I do not agree, however, that this automatically implies failure on the part of the manager assuming the manager has performed regular one on ones, feedback, coaching plans and proper alignment of skills to the position. We can only influence but cannot control one's behavior and attitude (See Feedback Podcast). The reality is that even with these efforts an employee can still fail. A manager shouldn't be made to feel any worse about making a tough decision especially since they are doing so in the best interest of other staff, as well as the employee being fired. I have personally received calls from former employees stating that their separation was in fact a great personal and professional growth experience even though they didn't see it that way at the time.

Thanks for listening,

Brett R. Mello
IT Director
Grand Rapids, MI

Brett, I can't recall our exact


I can't recall our exact words, but it certainly is possible that we overstated our case.

You're right ... "assuming the manager has performed regular one on ones, feedback, coaching plans and proper alignment of skills to the position", firing someone is not only *not* a failure, but an absolutely *required* action on part of the manager. And those conditions are met so incredibly infrequently in organizations today that we sometimes make the mistake of using absolutes in describing the "failure of management" in having to fire someone.

We stand corrected! ;-)

best regards,

Brett- No we don't stand corrected.


No we don't stand corrected. ;-) Mike and I disagree.

I'll blog on this more fully, but let me answer the points in your insightful post -for which I humbly offer thanks and kudos.

Mnagers are reepsonsible not JUST for process, but also for results. Just because you do everything "right", per Mike's exzcerpoting your comment, doesn't mean you're off the hook. The manager's role is to always be ON the hook. I would argue that even if you DO do everything right, if the results aren't there, you failed. I might say, yes, you followed your process, and 'well done you' for that, but now I have an issue with your process. A "correct" process that produces poor results isn't a shielf from managerial responsibility - surely this isn't in doubt - for departmental results overall, which include retention and coaching and cost savings, etc.

I'm not "making" you feel any worse by being your boss and saying you failed. I'm just saying you failed. You're feeling worse because, I would submit, you have imbued failure with a much higher emotional content than I do. I've failed so many times in my life, I've gotten good at it. Heck, I got fired!

I'm not saying "this manager's a failure". I'm saying "this manager failed". NOBODY is "a failure." EVERYBODY fails all the time. Executives I work with at the top of their game and organizations routinely talk about their inability to accomplish things. And the good ones don't make it emotional. Failure is just not achieving a goal.

You mention people who see their firing differently with the persepctive of time, indicating that good things come from firings, and therefore perhaps (?) that firing is a good thing. Sure, good things happen from it, the same as bad things happening from successes. (Success is a very bad teacher).

AND... it's still a failure. The manager who doesn't see it as a failure is not so different than the manager who won't do it better next time.

More soon,


Great feedback from both of you. I am,

Great feedback from both of you. I am, however, still stuck mentally on this topic.

Bottom Line Up Front: The failure is on the part of the staff member, not the manager. Managers who do everything appropriate to support the success of their staff do not need to be made to feel worse about terminating a failing staff member. That staff member had not only support, but choice. I fear your comments absolve them of their accountability to appropriate behavior.

I go back to my comment (and yours from the Feedback podcast) that we can only *influence* but cannot *control* one’s behavior and attitude.

After 20+ years of successful leadership and management, I still stand on the fact that a manager cannot be held responsible for the behaviors of others any more than we can own responsibility for their personal development. This is something the individual owns and is accountable for.

Now for the disclaimer: Management IS responsible for providing regular feedback and coaching on behavior and performance. A wise manager should always be looking to develop their staff by OFFERING opportunities for formal training and experiential learning where mutually appropriate to the individual and the organization.

Final thought today on this engaging topic: How much time does a manager owe a poor performing employee versus those that are high contributors and thought leaders? According to Gallup and Marcus Buckingham, we already spend too much time trying to rescue people who have choosen poor behavior/performance and neglect those who are providing the highest value to the team and organization.

Brett Mello
IT Director
Grand Rapids, MI

Brett- Great post! Don't feel like


Great post! Don't feel like the Lone Ranger in disagreeing. I am surely in the minority. Let's see if I can't add some points, even if it just makes our differences more clear.

I never said the employee didn't fail. They did. They own their behavior, and their behavior didn't meet standards, and so they're responsible.

That doesn't mean, though, as you say, that the failure is "not the manager[s]". It's a shared responsibility. Think about a football team. If they lose, is it only the quarterback's fault? Or just the coach's? Or is there a shared responsibility? Just because the kicker has all the best coaching and equipment in the world, does that mean that the coach bears a burden if he misses the late field goal?

My point in saying the manager has a responsibility is NOT to absolve the employee, but to teach managers that they, too, are responsible.

You write, "Managers who do everything appropriate to support the success of their staff do not need to be made to feel worse about terminating a failing staff member."

Many people tell me it's semantics, but I didn't *make* you or anyone else "feel worse". You did that all by yourself, with your own emotional attachments to the concept of failure. All I said was that if you fire someone, you've failed. (I am careful to never say you're a failure, which has holistic overtones I find objectionable.) As one of Horstman's Laws states, "How You Feel Is Your Fault."

Your fear about my absolution of the employee is unfounded. As I've said, I've never suggested or implied that the employee hasn't failed. They have.

And so has the manager.

Further regarding the apparent deathly pall the "failure" tag seems to have gotten. I've failed thousands of times. Edison used to say he had lots of "...'results',I'll show you 10,000 things that won't work!" I got fired from a job - that was my failure (and my bosses - the company suffered afterwards). And look where I am now. I failed, and it turned out fine. I've written some of these sentences 20 times, trying to get them just right. The first 19 were failures... all "bad", in the service of "better". I'm not happy about the failures, but I'm not unhappy either... because I'm more pleased with the result than I would have been without the 19 3rd-grade efforts.

If anybody ever needs a story of one of the most beautiful and moving failures in the world, I'll share it.

I agree with you [ hard not to, huh? :-) ] that we can only influence and not control others' behaviors.

Nevertheless, the fundamental principle of management is that managers ARE responsible for the behaviors of their team, insofar as those behaviors aggregate into team performance, which creates RESULTS. I cannot stress this too strongly, in light of the stridency of your argument. If you are a manager, you ARE explicitly responsible for the results, and implicitly the behaviors, of your team. This is a core organizational principle of all management roles, PERIOD.

Surely there are situations where a subordinate's behavior is outside the purview of the professional relationships and constructs of the organization. You're not liable or held to account if someone who works for you hits someone else. (though you can rest assured that there will be behavior that to an unintelligent observer would suggest that you were.) But we're talking about firing someone for failure to perform. That is in the core responsibilities of every manager.

If someone on your team isn't performing up to standards, then isn't your team by definition underperforming? If your team is underperforming? If your team is underperforming, are you not failing to achieve your goals (some of which go beyond primary metrics)? QED.

Again, this is not to suggest that the team member, per your post, doesn't "own" his behavior or the responsibility for his personal development. He does. But that doesn't mean you're not responsible for helping him and the outcome thereof. If he doesn't get there, what do you say? "He didn't do what I told him to?" That's not what you're paid for - enforcing standards. You're paid for results.... NONE of which you have ANY control over. But don't confuse control with accountability. The whole POINT of management (and the measly little pay increase that goes with it) is the acceptance of the transition from controlling what you're paid for to influencing what you're paid for.

Just because you do everything right doesn't mean you're off the hook. What does the CEO say whose company continually fails to meet quarterly targets? "The board agreed with my plan, so I'm okay"? I don't think so, not with any efficacy. "It was their fault"? Seriously, this is dangerous ground.

Yes, the employee is accountable. And so are you.

Your points about what management "IS responsible for" are dead on. But again... being responsible for process is not the whole story, just as the employee being responsible for their behavior isn't the whole story there.

The whole story is that the manager is responsible for all of it.

Your final point is perfectly placed here - WELL SAID! We haven't gotten into it yet, but you've highlighted the real conundrum of management - where does one spend one's time?

It would be easy to infer that the addition of the failure tag to a firing would suggest that managers should do everything in their power to avoid it. But we haven't said that either. A manager is paid to spend most of her team where she gets the most results. Generally, that is with your BEST performers.

A manager "owes" enough time with all performers to get the most out of the most directs for the most results. One must guard against stealing from your best to coach your worst. And, one must ALSO guard against ignoring poor performers*...

Because who wants to fail? ;-)

(Okay, unload on me. I can take it.)


* - We have casts on this topic, folks... WOW do we. 'Slavishly devoting oneself to top performers' is a GREAT place to start your priority management thinking.

Wow! Great response! You're right...

Wow! Great response! You're right... bottom line, we are responsible for the success and failure of our organization. I fully accept that responsibility. But in accepting that responsibility, I believe there are some cases (hopefully few) where firing someone may be the best and only option. In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about great leaders transforming the organization by not only getting the right people "on the bus" but also the wrong people "off the bus" in order to drive it where you need to go. That, too, is our responsibility.

Just so that you don't get the wrong idea about my approach and views (I'm not a fire happy manager), I'd like to point out that in my twenty years in the management ranks, I've only fired five people. And in those cases, it's always been related to poor behavior. It's never been about productivity, skills, experience, or disagreement. These have always been overcome with communication, training, and/or realignment.

And I'm not afraid to fail. I think I've learned more from my failures than my first try successes. Mark Twain wrote: "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." I've always felt that if I have to fail, I'm going to get something back from the experience. But all that being said, I've never learned how to rescue someone from themselves.

I guess the reason for my empassioned responses has to do with watching some of my managers suffer with misplaced guilt for having to make the tough decision to call it quits with an employee who is poisoning the ranks. If anything, taking too long to pull the trigger results in an increased rate of credibility loss with management by all the other hard working, committed staff members. I can't condemn their feelings on the matter, either, as it makes me know they're human and conscientious (a critical factor for a good manager in my book).

Thanks for indulging me in this dialog. You guys are great and make my one hour commute each way to work go by much faster. Keep up the good work!!


Discovering your podcasts within the

Discovering your podcasts within the past week has been a "just-in-time event".

I am an HR manager for a small company (170). The managers here know nothing of your podcasts and act as you describe most managers do.

I have been given the assignment to "fix" two employees because I'm "HR" and I have been successful "fixing" other problem employees. These two employees have problem behaviors because no one has ever given them feedback. Neither of these employees report to me.

I plan to follow your "How to Fire Someone (Well Almost)" approach. This is a touchy situation since the two do not report to me, in fact, each has a different supervisor. One supervisor is the Owner-CEO. As the two supervisors start to see positive results, I plan to introduce them to Manager Tools so that they can assume their proper role with these and their other directs.

I really feel empowered and confident because of the podcasts I've listened to so far. Thanks.

James Morse

James- Glad you're getting value out


Glad you're getting value out of our work! And thanks for the kind words.

Be VERY careful trying to "fix" those guys. That's the CEO's job (at least one of them is.) NO amount of brilliant HR magic will help anyone if you're not their boss. The right leverage point for you is to coach the CEO on how to do it. Tell him it's the difference between giving him a fish and teaching him how to fish. Tell him if he's not careful, the company will continue growing, more people will rely on you and others, HR will have to get bigger, and that model breaks down after a while. Far better to have the key leaders learn how to manage... and it's not hard!

Keep us posted.


Mark & Mike: I used the feedback

Mark & Mike:

I used the feedback model with the CEO's direct, and then I let her talk. Basically, she is suffering from no feedback and no coaching. There were other issues, but they all relate back to feedback and coaching.

I got a one-on-one meeting with the CEO and relayed to him that his direct report was frustrated because she did not know what was expected of her and that she did not know what she was doing correctly. She said that when she made mistakes she felt assaulted with hostile, negative remarks. My solution was that she needed feedback and coaching.

With that intro, I informed him of my discovery of Manager Tools and explained the feedback model. He was very interested and wants his direct reports to listen in. I did such a good sales pitch that I gave him my iPod with all of your programs on it.

I think his direct report can be "saved", and that she will be an asset to his company -- if he and his other direct reports learn how to give effective feedback.

This is a small but fast growing company where everyone's roles are changing. For managers that means "manager" changes from being a title to being a function.


Hi, This podcast mentions multiple


This podcast mentions multiple parts. Are those available under a different name? I don't see Part II for this.


Mike and Mark, I've been out of

Mike and Mark,

I've been out of college for a couple of years and I discovered your site on digg. I've been listening for about 5 months now and I've found the content on your site to be very helpful for trying to understand the professional world especially as a recent college grad. Thank you for all the hard work you do and the content you deliver so generously.

I've been reading Winning by Jack Welch and I was curious to know what you think of his 20-70-10 concept relating to differentiation. He believes that the bottom 10% of one's directs must go. He seems pretty firm in his assertion. Do you agree?


[...] having to fire someone. …

[...] having to fire someone. … Continue Filed under Fire Someone by Admin Permalink • Print • Email You don't need an air tight case to fire someone ... but you need toknow these factors. Copyright 2007 [...]

Mark Horstman Said: "If anybody ever

Mark Horstman Said:

"If anybody ever needs a story of one of the most beautiful and moving failures in the world, I’ll share it."


I'll be happy to hear that story!!


Hi Everyone, I have a team member

Hi Everyone,

I have a team member who has been missing deadlines, lets call him Bob. I have given Bob feedback regarding the ramnifications of missing deadlines (impact to key workpartners, visibility within the organization, etc.).

He warned me just before the holiday that he'd be missing another deadline, before leaving for vacation for a couple weeks. I told him that would not be acceptable and that instead, he should send what he as to another team member who had bandwtidth this week and they could finish out the project while he was away.

He never delivered the project nor sent materials so that the other team member could complete the project for him.

I just re-listened to the 'how to fire someone' cast and feel as though I am now ready for step three, one on one performance discussion. I am prepared to address that at our next one on one.

That said, this is a fairly serious misstep at my company. I have not encountered anyone who has not only failed to deliver on a deadline but also not responded to suggestions on how to handle the situation. To make matters more complicated, my own boss has noticed this employee's performance and mentioned it to me.

My question to you all is whether you think I should consider some other avenue of disciplinary action (other cast?) or if I should just patiently proceed to step 3 of how to fire someone. One thing I am considering is proceeding through steps 3 and 4 at the same time, which would require moving direclty into coaching next week.

Do you think moving into coaching right away would be prudent? My goal is to reign this out-of-control situation in right away. This employee was brought in at a more senior level, making this performance particularly unacceptable.

As an aside for those who are willing to comment, this is the first time I have encountered anything like this in my career and I feel frustrated. Is this appropriate? Or as a manager, should I be finding ways to separate my own emotions from management situations. The emotions go both ways, I feel genuine excitement for my people that shine, silently cheering them on during presentations,etc.

Thanks in advance for any comments.



Nope. Step 3 is warranted. But even

Nope. Step 3 is warranted. But even before that...HOW MANY instances of feedback have you given him in the past 3 months?


Will you be doing a "How to fire

Will you be doing a "How to fire someone (actually)" cast?

Recently I had to fire someone from our company. The decision was based on repeated rude and negative attitude (should have been a tip-off for how it would go for us in the termination meeting). We might have been able to follow your advice on coaching, but we decided that we couldn't tolerate that kind of behavior in our organisation. Let's just say it didn't go smoothly. Your casts have always been helpful, so I really missed having a cast on "How to fire someone when you've decided that you absolutely must do it".

Topics of interest...
-- Holding the meeting (when, where, setting it up, who should attend)
-- How to communicate the message
-- Dealing with potential fallout
-- Dealing with peer perception
... you guys could probably get it up to 10 bullets easily.

JpRtw- Yes, that's in our


Yes, that's in our future.


Waiting for it!

Hi Mark & Mike,

Waiting for that podcast

I always regret saying that,

I always regret saying that, because to murder Chaucer ;-), all of managerial endeavor lies within the scope of manager we have a few (thousand) casts to get out.

I suspect How To Fire will come out this year.

And, to be CRYSTAL clear, the ALMOST cast really ISN'T about firing someone. It's about coaching and due diligence.