How to Fix (or Fire) An Employee in 30 Days


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“Genuine leaders bring out the best in people through their purpose – they inspire us. They care about their employees and they’re not afraid to ask us to deliver more than we ask ourselves.”

During my senior year in college I aced an Army Physical Fitness test. When it ended my instructor walked over and extended his right hand towards me like a concrete shark-fin ready to stab me in the chest. His fingertips met my shirt as he said, “Laherty, you’re getting fat.” I couldn’t believe it – I had just maxed the test!

He didn’t mean it literally. He meant I didn’t push myself to find my limits – I stopped trying when the push-ups didn’t count.

Every manager has struggled to counsel an employee and we’ve all worked with someone who didn’t show up, or whose performance was so bad it caused havoc on our teams. How many times have you wondered how to approach your poor performer, or asked yourself why management hasn’t done something about a peer?

Poor performance is corrosive; it erodes trust in the company’s leadership team. Other employees are left to do more to fix problems someone else created. Questions turn into resentment. Why should good performers stay?

Everyone has faced unexpected challenges; times when we battled illness, addiction, financial loss, a spouse or family-member with serious problems…or a divorce, a wedding, and a new baby. All of these external pressures distract us from our jobs. Leaders offer empathy and support. They make reasonable concessions and adjust expectations to reduce employees’ workloads, to give them extra bandwidth to handle challenges. Concessions have an expiration date, but too often, one challenge creates more. Ultimately, your employee is responsible to trade their time and effort for your paycheck, and others will watch and judge you for the way you handle it.

Here’s the good news – counseling low-performers demonstrates that poor attitudes and unsatisfactory results are not acceptable; it enhances management’s credibility and guides mid and high-performers to better performance too.

Since leaders work through others they need to develop influence and a keen ability to motivate. Effective counselling supports the two most important tasks leaders manage: 1. Get the most out of their existing people; 2. Recruit the best candidates. Mastery over those skills creates a paradox – the more capable a leader is under extreme conditions, the less often they will need to apply their skills.

Let’s examine coaching and counseling in more detail. Counseling is hard… it’s draining, it’s stressful – that’s why it’s so difficult to fire someone. Why? Because managers put the burden on themselves. Managers also act in their self-interest, which means the least stressful, least time-consuming way. The effort to design performance improvement plans and write negative counseling letters feels unproductive. Poor performance is a vampire – it’s a vacuum that consumes energy you need for other parts of your job. Documentation to trigger the firing-process steals time, sours attitudes, and punishes results. Untrained managers either ignore the problem, or pass the employee to another group. Most have not had the training or coaching to show them how to improve behavior by shifting the counseling back to the employee.

I will show you how to turn it around – you’ll learn how to make low-performers do the heavy-lifting.

There are a few tasks that land squarely on the manager – and there are no shortcuts. At a minimum employees should know what’s expected of them, and they should have reasonable access to performance benchmarks. Answer these questions before you begin – the same questions a judge, HR business partner, and your boss should ask you:

1. Have you outlined or detailed your expectations for the employee and their role?

2. Have you provided feedback about their performance?

If you answered “no”, then you have more work to do before you can continue, but if you answered “yes” here’s one more – and it’s the most important one:

“Would I keep this person on my team if they turned their performance around?”

This path takes courage and can teach you as much about yourself as it will about your employee. Bluffing is a cowardly strategy – If you answered “No” stop reading now. For everyone else – here’s how you can make a positive difference.

1) Select three failures you expect to see again, and succinctly document the most obvious example for each one.

– On January 5th, you were twenty-five minutes late to work.

– On December 15th, you submitted an expense report that was due on October 31st.

– On January 10th, your customer, Acme Systems, called me to say that after four calls and three emails you still had not responded to them.

2) Identify a co-worker to witness the counseling session – task this person with note-taking so you can focus on the discussion with your employee.

3) Schedule a meeting with your employee in a safe place. If you believe your person could become violent, then coordinate with corporate security, but DO NOT have a security agent or guard visible, and consult Gavin de Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear” before your meeting.

4) Complete a script for your meeting and share it with your supervisor, your human resources lead, and the peer who will join you in the meeting room.

The Script
“Thank you for meeting with us. Mike, I’m disappointed with your recent performance. Over the past few months your work and performance have not met the standards for your continued employment with us. I am especially concerned about several issues that I want to discuss with you today. I’ll describe them, and ask you to create a plan to handle each one so they’re not repeated. You must correct these deficiencies and perform all of your work in accordance with our Company’s standards, guidelines, and regulations or your employment with us will be terminated.” (use your company’s boilerplate termination language here).

– On January 5th, you were twenty-five minutes late to work.

– On December 15th, you submitted an expense report that was due on October 31st.

– On January 10th, your customer, Acme Systems, called me to say that after four calls and three emails you still had not responded to them.

“Mike – I’ll re-read each of these concerns, so we can discuss what you will do to prevent this from happening again.”


Conduct the Meeting

1) Be respectful and treat your employee with dignity and kindness.

2) Read your script.

3) Discuss your employee’s response to each concern. If his corrective action plan is insufficient, point out how it could be improved, or be made acceptable to the organization, but don’t allow him to “develop” a plan that would be unacceptable.

4) Thank your employee for his effort on this plan.

5) Pause for a five minute “Bio Break.”

6) When you resume, inform your employee that you would like him to write out the corrective action plan designed during the discussion, legibly, on a piece of paper. At this point the employee will be under the maximum stress, as he realizes this isn’t a friendly chat, but rather an evidence-gathering activity designed to hold him accountable. Remind him that he has control over this since you want him on your team if he takes corrective action. Read his plan to ensure all of the conditions, benchmarks, milestones, and actions that he accepted are included.

7) Make several copies. Give one copy to your employee, one to HR, one to your supervisor, and retain the original.

This process shifts responsibility to the employee. It holds him accountable, and demonstrates to outsiders that the employee was the central figure in their performance improvement plan. It provides you and your company with solid evidence that the employee was counseled and given a chance to correct deficiencies. It’s proof they were warned and coached to better performance.

The Good
Employees who respond positively will make a visible effort to improve immediately. Your work isn’t done, but you are on your way to a better results, and better attitudes from everyone else. This is the reason you’re reading this right now, and why you’ll print it, share it with your boss, co-workers, and HR department. If you’ve ever managed a “difficult” team, you already know this will turn things around.

The Bad and the Ugly
Employees who are unable or unwilling to change will accelerate the termination process. It may start with a refusal to write down their corrective action plan. In most states and for most companies, refusal to participate is considered insubordination and is grounds for immediate dismissal. You should be prepared to read your company’s insubordination language to the employee then and there, and eliminate any doubt about what you’re asking for and what they’re doing. It may even be useful to have a termination letter prepared in advance for this situation. For many employees, recording a plan is the single act that answers all their doubts. Even as they wrote out what they would do to avoid being late, or missing a deadline, or failing to return a call or email, they already knew they were incapable of operating under the company’s rules. They may resign, or accelerate their performance slide to “force” their manager to fire them. I have never seen an employee survive longer than 30 days when they don’t want to change.

Once you terminate an employee for cause, many states give companies the right to decline to pay unemployment benefits. It’s tempting, but don’t do it. Your former employee has already fallen a long way and administrative law judges and courts take a dim view of companies and managers that behave vindictively – even when it’s allowed. You don’t want to face a civil suit with a mark in the loss column already established because an employment judge was sympathetic to a homeless victim. Pay the money and move forward.

Wrap Up
This is not legal advice and I am not an attorney. It’s a roadmap – one that applied carefully will give you power to coach, teach, train, and be a champion for your employees and a standard-bearer in your company. You’ve gotta own it! As a young Army Lieutenant I wrestled with more than just forcing someone to choose a new career – termination meant a Soldier would be forced out of his home, and his kids would need to move to a new school. These decisions shouldn’t be made lightly – they demand self-reflection about each leader’s role in their team’s performance, and genuine, continuous, and honest feedback about performance deficiencies. Once you realize you can coach people “back from the edge,” you’ll begin to accomplish a lot more.

This post was originally published on Pipeliner CRM Blog.

Paul Laherty
Paul Laherty leads Diio LLC's efforts to improve airlines' decision-support processes and access to critical data. He's an instrument-rated pilot, writer, speaker, world-traveler, veteran, husband, and father. He uses his life-experience and degrees from Indiana University to help people and organizations achieve significance, travel safely, and think differently.


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