Firing is a Process

Firing is a Process

by Jeanne Knutzen | September 28, 2022

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In fact, there’s 7 Steps to “Firing Right!”

..all supporting an important  overarching principle that anchors the firing process  – leaders don’t fire people, people fire themselves.

When a leader is actively managing performance – setting  standards, providing training and coaching to meet those standards including feedback when the employee veers off track – and an employee gets in performance trouble, it’s the employee, not their manager, who ultimately makes the decision to leave or stay in their role.  Our belief is that in a well-oiled “performance management system” the pressure is not on the manager to make a “firing decision” – it’s the employee who gets to decide!   Can I do this job?  Can I meet my bosses expectations?  Do I want to do this job?

Sometime the answer to all these questions is a resounding YES and the “firing right” process actually avoids a firing.  But if the answers to these questions are NO, the employee plays the key role in determining the remedy.    

Here’s the 7-step “Firing Right” process you can use to help a problem employee make the right decision….

1. Set clear expectations for what you expect.  Describe what good work looks like!

We like to start this step in the management process as early as the steps you go thru when hiring.   During the job interview, a manager can describe what “good work” looks like and the tools or methods that will be used to evaluate the employee’s performance.  You can even provide concrete examples of what you consider to be good, great or poor performance.  This early communication goes a long way to establish a tone for all your employee/employer relationships.  And while expectations need to be continually clarified as new situations come up, the foundations for both hiring and firing are launched during the hiring process.

2. Identify gaps! 

Once you see an employee struggling the leader’s job to explore when how and why they are falling short.  Any expectation you have for results or activity that are not being met are called gaps.  The earlier you identify a gap and start address it, the easier it is to get them corrected.  Wait too long and routine problems can become habits and invite the distracting question – “why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

Here are the most common types of gaps that signal the need for exploration….. 

  • The employee isn’t keeping up with productivity standards or requirements. While you don’t expect the same levels of results or productivity from a new employee that you expect from an employee already seasoned in their role, when a performance agreement is not being met, a new employee not learning what they need to learn, or a seasoned employee repetitively making mistakes, there are gaps that need to be addressed.
  • Customers, vendors or teammates are complaining.  Most teams can’t afford to lose customers or team members because of the below par performance or apathy of just one employee.  When you start fielding comments that suggest problems in how the employee is working with others, that’s suggesting there is a gap.
  • The employee is having trouble missing meetings or deadlines.  You’re getting signals that the employee either is not engaged with their work or doesn’t have the time management skills it takes to be successful on your team.  Thats a gap.
  • The employee is frequently bending team rules and standards.   For whatever reason, they  tend not to follow processes that are important to the team’s productivity.  They’re late for work or frequently absent.  They don’t let you know when they go off line.  These are gaps that cannot go unattended.
  • The employee doesn’t respond to feedback or coaching….and fails to make changes in their approach to certain pieces of the job that are important to the team’s growth. They may be either unable or unwilling to make the changes needed and can leave gaps that can become a drag on the team’s momentum.  Most leaders want to identify these types of gaps before they start to impact the team.
  • The employee is often in the middle of team drama or gossip. They seem to be a part of the pot stirring that takes the team down.

We often get asked when do you start documenting a gap.  We recommend that you provide a brief e mail summary after each performance relevant conversation….even if the issue doesn’t seem that serious at the time.

Hi John…Want to thank you for our conversation this afternoon to clarify the expectations I have for your work with the ABC project.  Because this is a new situation for both you and I, going forward, if you have a customer situation that you aren’t quite sure how to handle, I’d like you to get to me quickly so that we can work together on the final fix.”

3. Work with the employee to explore the reasons for the gaps PLUS clearly communicate their impact to the employee or their team.  

Of the 7 steps in the “Firing Right” process, this is the step where good managers can become great mentors or simply perform a supervisory function. There are many reasons for gaps that can only be uncovered thru rich authentic conversations.  Once the gaps are described, the skillful leader asks questions that will reveal what might be creating them.  The tone is exploratory and curious, not judgemental.  The leader listens carefully to what the employee is saying, which tend to reveal reasons for the gaps which fall into one or two of the following buckets….

  • The employee sincerely didn’t know what you expected, which is the easiest kind of gap to fix and actually is the culprit behind a gap more times than we like to admit – particularly for a new employee finding their way.  Gaps falling into this bucket can be quickly fixed…so pay close attention to the changes in behavior that should happen relatively quickly if the real reason for the gap is “I didn’t know”.  Also be watchful for employees who will overuse the “I wasn’t aware” explanation…as it tends to put the accountability for gaps back on you rather than the employee where it belongs.
  • The employee doesn’t know how to meet the expectation…which is a little more difficult to detect as many employees are not quick to admit they don’t now how to do their job.  Gaps in “skills or knowledge” signal the need for more training or retraining which hopefully can be am easy fix IF you have the training resources available.   If the training or retraining needed isn’t available, you and the employee need to have an honest conversation about what the employee will be able and willing to do on their own which may give clues about the employee’s motivation to do the job.
  • The employee isn’t motivated to meet your expectations…either because meeting your expectations requires more effort than they are willing to give, OR they don’t quite understand the consequences of falling short.  They don’t get just how serious you are about the need for change.   If the issue you are addressing is indeed job threatening, you should tell them so.  If their gap will get in their way of a future promotion, tell them so.  If you see opportunities for the employee they haven’t thought about if they close the gap, let them know.  Whatever the consequences – make sure they are aware of what’s at stake.
  • The employee is being distracted by “other stuff” including personal issues.   Unfortunately, we see this as an issue with more employees today than we have seen in the last couple of decades.  While it is not your job to fix a personal issue creating gaps in your employee’s work, you can be very concrete about the issues that could become more serious if not corrected.  You can also be a sounding board for things going on outside of work that are creating issues with the employee’s performance. If the employee indicates that there are things going on “at work” that are contributing to their gaps, pay close attention as the problem may be bigger than you bargained for when you started your 7 step process.  Sometimes gaps in one person’s work will open up like an amoeba – and point to other more more complex issues impacting the entire team.

One of the most important elements in the  “why the gap” phase of the performance management process is that it gives the manager the opportunity to get a full understanding of the issue. 

4. Ask the employee to create a plan to close the gap.

Once you know why there is a gap in the employee’s performance, you need to ask them to create a plan to get it fixed.  Set targets and timelines that, depending on the nature of the gap, creates a sense of urgency.  Document the plan in as much detail as needed to ensure there is full understanding of the plan. 

While continuing to hold the employee responsible for closing the gap, a skillful  manager can also learn what “help” will be needed to get the employee back on the right path.

A great way to end a performance conversation is “what can I do to support your efforts to close this gap?”

5. Follow Up….

…is probably the most painful and poorly executed step in our  “Firing Right” process.  The leader needs to lay out their follow up plan and then follow up as agreed.

Follow up conversations are a time for managers to provide encouragement and feedback, reinforce the importance of the process, particularly if the gap is job threatening, and listen carefully for any change in the employee’s attitude about the process.   Ongoing conversations are needed to strengthen or adjust the plan, but also to learn more about how its going from the employee’s perspective.

6. Bring the plan to its logical conclusion….

…which can be rather straightforward. Either the employee fixes the issue, brings their performance up to acceptable levels, you keep being willing to adjust the plan, or at some point you must be prepared to execute on the consequences laid out in Step 3.

This 6th step of the 7 steps “Firing Right” process is your opportunity to fully visualize the impact of the decision to terminate an employee PLUS communicate a decision re: the timing of when the employee must decide.   As we have discussed the decision to terminate is not yours, but the timing of when that decision will be executed is.

7. When its time to terminate, its a simple conversation.   

But how you handle that conversation matter.  Empathy goes a long way throughout the 7-Step process, but especially in the final step.

“I’m sorry but we’ve now been involved in a process to correct an issue that has serious job threatening consequences we’ve been talking about for the last several weeks.  Unfortunately, you have not been able to meet the expectations we’ve discussed which means we have to let you go.”  

Be prepared to listen to the employee vent.  They may be sad.  They are likely to be angry.  “I understand your feelings, but this is the outcome we just can’t keep avoiding” always helps.

We recommend you come prepared with a written description of of key information the employee will eventually need to know……

  • When will they get their last pay check?
  • How will their benefits be impacted?
  • How will their personal property be retrieved? How will they return any company property?
  • What will you say in response to their claim for unemployment compensation?
  • What will you say in response to a request for reference info?
  • When will the team be fold of their leaving?


While terminating an employee is never at the top of a leader’s favorite work, it’s often a necessary step in building and growing a team where everyone on the team has a chance of experiencing the successes of that team.   The key to an effective system of performance management  is to integrate what you do in your hiring process with what you do in your 7 step”firing right” process  – clear expectations, quick recognition of gaps, corrective action, and follow up.

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