Firing Employees: How Leaders Can Make Tough Decisions

Many great facility executives, who seek to integrate employee growth and organizational health, struggle with firing decisions.

employee management
Photo: Adobe Stock – MalikE/

Most great facility management leaders have the same questions when they have to make firing decisions. They often ask themselves, should I give them another chance, what if they can improve, or how will it affect team morale? Great leaders, the ones who seek to integrate employee growth and organizational health, struggle the most with firing decisions. Managers who view employees as tools don’t care. Passive leaders who care about making people happy rather than organizational health, also have an easier time because they don’t fire except for egregious problems. Great leaders though, continuously sort through a lot of grey area to get to the right decision.

Using Feedback Systems

First, one of the ways great leaders can deal with tough decisions is to make sure they have feedback systems in place for all employees. Well-delineated systems of feedback create two positive outcomes: first, it is a way to ensure that employees have real-time feedback so that they can improve. When employees receive multiple pieces of clear feedback, they are less likely to be surprised by negative performance reviews or firing decisions. Second, leaders tend to forget a lot of incidents while handling businesses. When feedback systems are in place, leaders will have meeting notes or other documentation on the specific examples discussed. If a leader is worried about being too harsh, reviewing a list of incidents that relate to the problem can help them clearly see the patterns over time.

Common Concerns

Great leaders are usually problem-solvers, and they may feel like they are giving up on both the problem and the person if they fire them. The difficulty with this thought process is that some human problems cannot be solved. For example, some people aren’t good at “thinking ahead” because they do not have the capacity for hypothetical or abstract reasoning. Thus, they cannot be coached to think big-picture or long-term because they are unable to do so at a neurological level. Other people have character or personality problems; these are entrenched and are unlikely to change. Even when people with character or personality problems want to change, it generally takes years of concerted effort.

Great leaders may question the impact to the business when they fire someone. It’s an appropriate concern, especially when there will be significant downstream effects. Sometimes leaders feel trapped if the employee has a specialized skillset or knowledge base that will be difficult to replace. The significant factor to consider is the ramifications of not firing someone. Other employees generally don’t complain because they do not want to be seen as tattletales. Thus, bosses generally only learn of the true amount of damage after the employee in question is gone.

In terms of skillset, if there is no succession planning or cross-training, the employee in question will hold the company emotionally hostage due to fear of lost productivity and revenue. A good question to consider in this circumstance is “how would we manage if this person was hit by a bus?” It may sound harsh, but crises force collaboration and outside-of-the box thinking that is much different than the possible solutions that are generated in normal time.

Many great leaders have a deep concern and loyalty for employees. They unwittingly sign an emotional contract that the welfare and career trajectory is solely the leader’s responsibility. While difficult decisions absolutely make an impact on people’s lives, the employees also have the responsibility to show up for their part of the contract. Regardless of the culture, missions, and relationships, the entire employer-employee system assumes that an employee will provide a certain amount of service in exchange for a specified dollar amount. This is the reason that employees in great work environments, who love their managers, may leave a company if they find that their services are valued more highly elsewhere. Conversely, this is the reason that it is appropriate for leaders to assess whether employees are fulfilling their part of the exchange.

When It’s Not The Right Fit

In some situations, employees in question may be dedicated, kind, and loyal to their colleagues. They simply may not have the skillset that is needed for the role. This mismatch may be due to a poor hiring decision or due to company growth that has required new skillsets. Either way, leaders can have a dramatic impact by telling the employee about those positive attributes and guiding them toward a more fitting role. If there is not space within the company, the leader may suggest areas of work that may be a good fit for the employee. These types of conversations should only be had with employees of high integrity and character, where they will value the kindness and efforts of the leader. If poor character is involved the person will simply blame the company and sharing extra thoughts may increase employment litigation risk.

A simple tactic for leaders to use to help in decision-making is to close their eyes and ask themselves this question: “how will I feel if this person and this issue is no longer a problem in one week, six months, or a year?” If the thought brings immense relief, it is a signal of the amount of energy and emotional bandwidth that is being consumed by continuing to make the situation work.

A tactic leaders can use to assess if an employee is improving is to watch behavior. True change always occurs at a behavior level. It is seen by multiple people, and it continues in an upward trajectory, even during times of stress. People can fake the right answers in a meeting or over a time-limited period. If an employee seems to improve after feedback but returns to baseline in a few months, it is a flag that long-term change will probably not occur.

Finally, it is important for leaders to understand that no one has the absolute right answer, and that they will make mistakes. There is no manual for how to be a great leader, and no encyclopedia exists to manage the vast number of human idiosyncrasies. Leaders can take courage by collecting the data, making the call that they can live with, and then continuing to learn through each decision.

Dr. Tricia Groff, Ph.D., is an executive advisor and executive coach who works with high achievers and their organizations. She is also a licensed psychologist who brings 20 years of behind-the-scenes conversations to her recommendations for workplace wellness and profitability. Dr. Groff is the author of Relational Genius: The High Achiever’s Guide to Soft-Skill Confidence in Leadership and Life.

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