Spetner: Firing people sucks...but sometimes it's the best option

It's never pleasant, but keeping an underperforming employee on staff can have far worse consequences.

A friend of mine started a new job six months ago, and she already had to let someone go for poor performance. She was recruited to be the head of corporate communications and inherited a team that wasn't operating at its peak. Apparently, the guy she let go had been foundering at the company for more than two years. Despite clear consensus that he needed to be terminated, no one had actually been willing to deal with him. 

"I wish companies would confront their HR issues before they bring in a new person," my friend lamented. "It's really not fair to make a new person tackle long-time performance issues."

Well, let me share a little secret about corporate life: it's really unpleasant and hard to fire someone, so bad behavior and subpar performance get tolerated for a long time. Or as another friend recently quipped about his employer: "I think you have to actually defecate on a conference-room table before they'll fire you from this place."

When I first began to manage large staffs, I mistakenly believed that the HR department would encourage me to counsel out managers that weren't pulling their weight. I assumed I'd have a supportive, collaborative, and encouraging partner in the delicate and unpleasant task of weeding out poor performers. I couldn't have been more wrong. I was mostly warned about the legal hurdles in terminating an employee, and was presented with a series of bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to move forward. The reaction from HR was not just unsettling, it weakened my resolve to take action on a very difficult and painful task.

So I did what any good bureaucrat would do, I delayed the hard decisions. I worked around poor performers and slowly diminished their roles, so that they couldn't inflict too much damage on the department. Worse, I tried to facilitate their transfer to another department.

But none of it really worked. My boss held me accountable for the department's results, and made it clear that I had to deal with my people issues. Slowly I got better at it, because I had to. And I came to learn that you can actually let someone go if it's the right thing to do, and you commit yourself to it. The key ingredient is resolve. You have to be clear about why the person needs to be terminated, that the termination is legally and morally defensible, and that it's the right thing for the company.

You also have to be willing to fight for it, the same way you fight for new headcount or new budget. You must be passionate, resolute, and prepared to justify the decision to numerous people. 

Most of all, you have to steel yourself for the fact that very few people, if any, are going to help you make the decision. It's a lonely and agonizing process, which is why so many people keep delaying the inevitable. But taking action is almost always the better option. I find myself giving this counsel to friends and clients over and over again.

In the best companies, weeding out poor performers is an accepted way of life, and an annual exercise. The process is transparent and logical, and the individuals in question know when and why their job is at risk. But this approach is sadly lacking at a lot of firms, so the burden of confronting poor performers falls to the individual departments and managers. Thus, lackluster employees tend to stick around for a long time.

Or at least until a new person is brought in to shape up the department.

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