Firing – A Tough Decision? An Easy Process?*

Firing – A Tough Decision? An Easy Process?*

by Jeanne Knutzen | September 28, 2022

0 Author-Jeanne, Lead Gen Automation Campaign - Q4 2022.23, MANAGEMENT. SUPERVISION, Management.Supervision get connected


Smart Leaders Let Employees Fire Themselves!

When a leader actively manages performance – setting  standards, providing training and coaching to meet those standards, and gives feedback when the employee veers off track – it’s always employee, not their manager, who determines if its time for them to leave their job.  When an employee becomes a problem, a well-oiled “management system” takes the pressure off the manager to make a ‘firing” decision, and let’s the employee decide!   Can I do this job?  Do I want to do this job?  Can I meet my bosses expectations?

Sometimes the “firing right” process delivers “yes’s” to these questions and helps the employees get motivated to get back on track.  For others who find their answers to these questions are no, the “firing right” process can be an insightful journey that results in a decision to end their employment “for all the right reasons.”        

The 7-step process to “Firing Right”: 

1. Set clear expectations for what “good work looks like” early in the process!

 We like to start this step in the management process early – in fact embedding it into the hiring process.  During the job interview, a manager can describe what “good work” looks like and actually provide copies of the tools used to evaluate the employee’s performance once hired.   The more examples you can provide of what you consider good, great or poor performance the better and establishes a tone for any feedback you might have to provide down the road.

While we realize expectations have to be continually clarified as new situations come up, the foundations for both hiring and firing “right” 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, either for results or certain levels of activity and effort, that are not being met are considered “gaps”.

The earlier you identify a gap and start addressing it, the easier it is to get those gaps corrected.  Waiting too long can lead to routine problems becoming habits, much more difficult to course correct!  Waiting too long can also impact your approach – going from a normal and routine conversation about an easy course correction to a conversation that can have more of an edge because the gap has grown too large, too fast and there is fear that it could impact the team’s results.

Here are some issues/gaps that need your attention right out of the gate…. 

  • Unmet productivity standards or work requirements. While you don’t expect the same levels of results or productivity from a new employee that you expect from a seasoned employee, 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, these gaps need to be addressed.
  • Complaints from customers, vendors, teammates or the higher ups.   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 find yourself fielding comments that suggest problems in how the employee is carrying their load or interacting with others, address it early.
  • Missed meetings or deadlines…..which are often 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.
  • Uncharacteristic absences or tardies.  Employees having trouble with their job, are frequently absent or tardy, not always for legitimate reasons but as a way to avoid being exposed as someoe not doing their job at the level needed.  Particularly in remote environments, it is important to address gaps in “availability” early not only to make your expectations crystal clear but to better understand the issues one of your employees might have in meeting those expectations.
  • No improvement after feedback or coaching.  Problem employees often have difficulty making changes in their approach to certain pieces of the job even after being given feedback.  They appear to be either unable or unwilling to make the changes you have requested or they have agreed to make and you find yourself having to spend more time than you’d like clarifying expectations, chasing the gaps.  When you sense an employee is resisting your feedback, the gap is already reaching a more serious stage.
  • Drama and gossip.  Employees who become part of any pot stirring often need a quick but focused course correction so that they clearly hear your expectation “not to get involved.”

Documenting Gaps.  We are often asked when a manager or supervisor should document a conversation about a gap.    Our response is always – when it comes to documentation more is generally better.  We recommend you follow up any gap conversation with a brief e mail – 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. Explore reasons for the gaps AND clearly communicate their impact! 

Of the 7 steps in the “Firing Right” process, this is the step where good managers can become great mentors.  There are many reasons that cause gaps and those reasons can only be uncovered thru authentic conversations.  Great mentors earn their stripes relative to the quality of the questions they ask an employee when talking thru gaps.   The tone is always exploratory and curious, not judgmental.  The leader must listen carefully to what the employee is saying, probing where needed to make sure you’ve correctly heard what they have to say.

The reasons for gaps tend to 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.  “Not understanding the expectation” is the culprit behind more gaps than we like to admit – particularly for a new employee finding their way.  Gaps falling into this bucket should be quick fixes, so once you’ve clarified what you expect, pay close attention to the changes in behavior that should happen relatively quickly.  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 your expectationwhich 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 is also an 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.  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 so that you quickly get any questions about the “wannado” resolved.  Keep in mind not all employees genuinely want to do the job they’ve been hired to do, and discovering that truth is part of this 7 step process.
  • The employee is being distracted.  Unfortunately, we see this as an issue with more employees today than we have seen in the last couple of decades.  Particularly with our younger employees,  stressors in personal lives often spill over into work.  While it is not our job to fix a personal issue that is keeping the employee distracted and unable to give their job the attention it needs, you can be 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 this one employee.  Sometimes gaps in one person’s work reveal more complex issues impacting the entire team.

One of the most important aspects of “exploring the gap” is that it gives the manager the opportunity to fully understand the issue. When it comes to applying a remedy, the reason for the gap MATTERS!  

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, its the employee’s turn to create a plan to get it fixed.  Make sure the plan establishes performance targets and timelines that, depending on the nature of the gap, creates a sense of urgency to get the problem fixed.   If you don’t think their plan will deliver the improvements needed, let them know and offer up some ideas of your own.

Putting the plan on paper is important.  If you sense they will have trouble doing that, you can offer to document the plan on their behalf.   The most important component of a plan is that it contains specific agreements as to who will do what by when, and getting those details in writing is key to successful follow up.  

While making sure the employee knows they are exclusively responsible for creating and executing their plan to deliver the results you are asking for, there is nothing wrong in asking what “help” they might need from you to ensure their successful progress.

A great way to end a gap conversation is a simple question – “what can I do to help you close this gap?”

5. Follow Up….

…is probably the most painful and poorly executed step in the “Firing Right” process.  The leader needs to clearly state when and how they will follow up 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 by now should be a pretty straightforward conversation.  Either the employee is making good progress to close the gap, OR the plan needs to be adjusted to address issues you didn’t expect, OR at some point you have to take action 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.

While the decision to terminate is not yours, but the timing of when that decision will be executed is.

7. If and when it is time to terminate, its a simple conversation….   

…but how you handle this conversation matters.  Empathy goes a long way throughout the 7-Step process, but especially in the final step.

“I’m sorry but we’ve now been working on correcting this problem for several weeks.  While I see you trying and some progress is being made,  I suspect even you can see that you are not meeting the expectations we’ve discussed which means we need to stop trying and get ready to work thru a transition.  I know at some level you agree with that next step as well.”      

While the beauty of the seven step process is that the employee can see for themselves where their performance falls short of your expectations, be prepared to listen to their response if they have something to say.  They may be sad.  They may be angry. But ultimately they will understand that you’ve given them the chance to decide if the job is the right fit for them.

 “I understand your feelings, but this is the outcome we just can’t keep avoiding.”  

Come prepared to steer the conversation in the direction of key information….

  • 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?

We recommend you put these elements in writing so that the employee walks away with a “termination document”.   Some employers require 2 people to be in a termination meeting.  We believe that if you’ve carefully executed your seven step process a second “witness” to the final conversation is not necessary.

How Can PACE Help? 

While terminating an employee is not something we can do for you, we can help you construct a hiring process that incorporates your performance expectations right from the start – making sure the candidate you hire knows what you will expect on the job, and has been carefully selected to meet your expectations.  Integrating your expectations into how and who you hire, how you orient the employee to your work group, how you manage their performance and deal with gaps in performance as they come up, will do wonders for the people side of your business!

Are you getting ready to fire a problematic employee?

PACE can take the pressure off by making sure you have a replacement employee ready to go when its time for your problem employee to leave.

For more information about PACE’s recruiting and staffing services, why our approach to recruiting and staffing is noticeably different from our competitors and ideally suited for small to medium sized Northwest business, we’d love to chat.

You can reach us by using the contact form below, emailing us at  or calling us at 425-637-3312.


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