Some managers avoid firing poor performers

Columnist Dave Conrad says make a list of items to determine if an employee simply needs more coaching or needs shown the door.

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Dear Dave,

At my company, we are bad at terminating people that need to be let go. My fellow managers will side-step this obligation, and it is causing us to keep poor performers in their jobs. Further, our good employees are giving up and quitting because they are tired of working with inept coworkers. When is it time to and how should we let people go? Any ideas will help.

— T

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Dear T,

The obligation to fire those workers that need firing is difficult for so many managers — especially if the managers have suffered through a termination themselves. Often, letting poor performers or destructive workers go turns out to be the best thing for the company and the terminated employee. Some employees are miserable in their jobs and if they are terminated, they will find that they are better suited for employment elsewhere.


It is a fact that, not everyone is going to fit in with and work hard with the mission and goals of a company. Accordingly, keeping an employee around who isn't contributing positively, or is negatively impacting the culture, can really hurt a company. If the employee will not or cannot change, the manager must let them go — this is a management obligation. However, there should be a process that you follow for termination — especially if you need to fire union workers.

The single greatest resource managers must manage is people. To sustain energy and engagement, and to retain the best talent, managers must make the workplace an enjoyable (not too much fun) and productive place for themselves and their teams. But this does not mean coddling inept or poisonous workers. There are limits and they must be defined.

The huge task of terminating one or more employees can depress a manager and make her or him feel like a victim in the matters. Simply, many managers think they have failed if they need to fire someone — maybe they haven’t tried hard enough, or maybe they were not clear about goals and tasks, or even it may because they didn’t train the employee well enough.

When to say when

If you have evaluated an employee's performance, attitude, motivation and cultural fit, and decide it's in your company's best interest to let him or her go, you still need to consider legal issues. You should consult with your HR department or specialist immediately before making any decisions. If your company is small and has no HR personnel, I recommend that you talk to someone who can give you appropriate practical and legal advice.

Because terminating someone is such a big decision, it helps to have an unemotional and objective way to measure the impact of the decision. Document and file everything, including performance issues, inappropriate behavior, interpersonal conflict and even bullying. Try using a checklist to determine employee termination costs and advantages. Here are some checklist considerations:

Ask this question: Are workers actually trying, or are they refusing, to get better? If the answer is refusal, you need to part ways with them — and the sooner the better. Remember, your other employees are watching to see how you handle performance problems with their coworkers, so you must act swiftly, though fairly, to take care of business.

Not performing to expectations: When you review their performance with them, and if they are failing to meet their goal expectations repeatedly, they may not be a good fit for your team, especially if they are pushing responsibilities onto their coworkers, causing them additional stress.

Attitude check: Negative attitudes drive negative behaviors. Is their attitude negatively affecting other people? Are you getting complaints from your other workers about the bad attitudes of specific employees? Employees who talk negatively about coworkers and managers create toxic environments. If they are “poisoning the well” say, “Adios.”


Bad behavior is getting worse: Most employees will work harder when given an unfavorable performance review that is well-reasoned and objective. On the other hand, if you find that your improvement efforts are met by disinterest, disengagement or even worse performance, you have done your job and it is time to part ways.

You’re getting customer complaints: If customers are not fully satisfied, your business will suffer. So, when customers are dissatisfied on a regular basis as a result of an employee’s work, attitude, or behavior, you must seriously consider whether to keep this person on board.

In summary, it’s never pleasant to consider terminating an employee. But if you’ve tried to help her or him improve through training, feedback, mentorship, and a formal performance improvement plan and the problems remain, it’s certainly best to terminate the employee.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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