Letting an employee go doesn’t have to keep you up at night!

Here’s a 7 step journey to stress free firings. 

 I don’t know about you….but I hate having to let someone go – particularly when I’ve invested a lot of time trying to coach them into success.    But as all managers know, there comes a time when you have to stop the coaching and put on a different hat – the hat that says its time to decide one way or the other if the employee can stay on the bus.

This blog is being written to make the case that when we’re doing our job – setting clear expectations, offering training, coaching, and other resources to help the employee succeed, giving constructive feedback whenever its needed – there is actually a process you can use to bring all that hard work to its natural end. It is a process that brings clarity to the decision that has to be made – for both you and your employee. It requires the employee to see for themselves if they can do the job, or if they even want to do the job. These are the questions that we all want to know when it comes time to fish or cut bait. 

Check out this 7-step process for “firing right”…. 

1.  And it all starts with shared expectations for what “good work looks like” – What results need to be achieved. What activities need to be performed.    

 When it comes to clarity, we might want to think of the firing process as something that starts early – even during a RESULTS FOCUSED hiring process where a key step is for the hiring manager to clearly define what they expect a new employee to achieve – not do or be, but to achieve. In a RESULTS FOCUSED hiring process, your interview with a candidate is actually a discussion of those expectations, giving the candidate an opportunity to describe how they would go about meeting the expectations, achieving the needed results. This gives you the information you need to determine if they are the right candidate for the job.

Getting clear on expectations is a foundational element of a RESULTS FOCUSED hiring process. Making sure those expectations are alive and well is a foundational element of a RESULTS FOCUSED firing process. It is also the  first step in your 7 step journey.  

2. Initiate a GAP Conversation. 

When an employee’s performance continues to fall short, our job is to identify the gaps and describe them clearly! The gap conversation  makes sure that any expectation we have about the employee’s performance on the job – either for results, activity levels or effort – that are not being met are clearly identified as “gaps”.

Gap conversations can happen any time…and doesn’t have to wait until you’re deep into the 7 step process. The earlier we identify a gap and start addressing it, the easier it is to get those gaps corrected. Waiting too long often turns a problematic behavior into a habit, more difficult to course correct! It also impacts how we talk about the gap. Waiting too long to address a gap issue can take the “gap conversation” from a casual course correction (“next time you might want to consider_______”) to a more edgy conversation about a gap that has grown into a more serious issue (“this is an issue that could really impact on our team”) .

As a reminder, there are some gaps that you want to address early – long before our 7 step process.   

  • Falling short on productivity standards/ taking too long to complete work / making mistakes / missing deadlines. While we don’t expect the same results from a new employee that we do from a seasoned employee, when our minimum expectations for what an employee should be achieving at this stage in their employment are not being met (or worse, not even close) the gaps simply can’t be ignored, or we, as the employee’s leader become part of the problem. Gaps in performance basics should either be considered job threatening or if ignored, will end up damaging the team and our ratings as a leader.
  • Complaints from customers, vendors, teammates or the higher ups. Companies can’t afford to lose customers because of the below par performance or apathy of any employee. If we find ourselves fielding comments from customers or co workers suggesting that there might be problems in how the employee is carrying their load or interacting with others, there are surely some gaps that need to be explored.
  • Uncharacteristic absences /late for works. Some of the first symptoms we uncover when  an employee is having trouble meeting expectations, are increases in absences or more late to works. Not showing up for work is a way to avoid being exposed as someone who either can’t or doesn’t want to do their job – in other words a symptom of other problems.
  • No improvement after feedback or coaching. Employees who are chronically problematic often don’t respond to feedback. If after giving early feedback and we don’t see the changes requested, we need to escalate the work needed to identify if the issue is about ability, training, or motivation. How we address the “fix” will be quite different depending on our diagnosis.
  • Involvement in drama or gossip. Employees who put themselves in the middle of pot stirring may simply love drama, or are they are avoiding their jobs, NOT taking responsibility for their results. If you are working with a pot stirrer the first step is to always make clear that you expect them to avoid drama and gossip and see what happens next.

A Note on Documentation. When it comes to when and how we document the gaps in performance and our gap relevant conversations, more is generally better. An easy step is to follow up any gap conversation with a brief email – 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,  we agreed that going forward if there is ever a customer situation that you aren’t familiar with, you’re going to request time to reference the history notes in their file before responding.  

3. In your gap conversation, work with the employee to clarify the underlying issue while making sure they understand the impact of their gap.

This is the step in our 7-step process where good managers need to turn the corner from mentor to manager. There are always reasons that create or contribute to performance gaps. These reasons are typically uncovered thru a series of authentic conversations, where mentors earn their stripes by the quality of their questions, and employees earn their place on the team by answering them truthfully. The tone of any gap conversation needs to be curious, not judgmental…but when you’re in the 7-step process the tone needs to shift from mentoring to consequence managing.

Keep in mind that most gaps 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 as once you’ve clarified what you expect, all you have to do is pay  close attention to the employee’s changes in behavior. Pay attention to employees who tend to 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 was unable to meet your expectationwhich is a reason for a performance problem that can be more difficult to detect. Most employees are not quick to admit they don’t now how to do their job, even though gaps in “skills or knowledge” can oftentimes be an easy fix. Even if you don’t have the resources to train (re-train) the employee, you will need an honest conversation about what the employee will be able and willing to do on their own to develop the knowledge and skills they need. What they are willing to do will tell you a lot about their motivation.
  • 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, they need to be told that fact. If their gap is likely to get in the way of future promotions, they need to know. The bottom line is that whatever the consequences are for an employee “not fixing the gap” you need to communicate those consequences clearly. The employee’s response will tell you about their motivation.
  • The employee is being distracted. Personal issues that distract an employee from achieving expected results are more prevalent in today’s world than they were a decade ago. Stressors in an employee’s personal life can easily spill over into work. While it is not our job to fix an employee’s personal issues, you can be both empathetic and clear about what you can or cannot do to help a employee thru a tough patch. If the distraction you uncover is not about a personal issue but something going on “at work”, 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.

4. Make sure that you clearly ask your employee to create a plan to close the gap, fix the problem.  

In the big picture, the manager’s job is always to uncover gaps and bring them to the surface. The employee’s job to close the gap. Sometimes in the mentoring/coaching phase of gap management, the two sets of responsibilities can get confused.

If the gap is something that has been talked about before, chances are previous plans to close the gap have not worked. In your 7-step process you need to highlight what has or has not been done in the past and make it clear that you are now at a place where there is little to no room to keep trying unless we change the trajectory of results. And there needs to be a plan that represents the employee’s final attempts to meet your expectations.

For many enterprise level companies, the plan at this stage in the process is a formal performance improvement plan (PIP) that can be used to document and rationalize the personnel action that is being anticipated. The plan we recommend get created is much more casual. Tell me what you think you can do differently to close the gap and avoid the impact we’ve been talking about?    

The employee will either have some new ideas, be clueless, or somewhere in between. They will almost never a specific set of goals, sub goals and timelines that a formal PIP requires. That said, you should always leave a gap meeting with some understanding of what the employee will be doing to close the gap. If you don’t think their ideas are aggressive enough, let them know. Its okay to offer up some ideas of your own.

The plan needs to end up on paper, but that can happen as simply as you offering to document the conversation you’ve just had. By taking the lead on documentation you can chose a format that focuses the employee’s attention on their “change” agreements – what they are going to start doing, stop doing, or do differently. You should also list the dates when you will be circling back with the employee to see how they are doing.

5. Follow Up….

…is probably the least well executed step in our 7 step process but starts with a plan that has a specific set of follow ups. We need to follow up on the plan as agreed. That doesn’t always happen, but should.

Follow up conversations are invaluable – they provide an opportunity for managers to provide encouragement and feedback, reinforce the importance of the process, and listen carefully for changes in tone or motivation. Follow up conversations should strengthen the plan and/or identify the need for it to be adjusted.

6. Bring the plan to its logical conclusion….

…which by now should be a pretty straightforward conversation. Either 1) the employee is making noticeable and positive progress to close the gap, 2) the plan needs to be adjusted to address issues you didn’t expect, OR 3) you have to take action on the consequences you carefully laid out in Step 3.

This 6th step of the process is where you communicate a decision re: the timing of the final decision. Even though the 7 step process is designed to let the employee make the final decision, decisions about timing, i.e. when the final decision will be made, are yours.      

7. If and when it is time to terminate, the 7th step, is a simple conversation….   

…but your empathy matters.

“As you know, we’ve been working on correcting this problem for several weeks now. While I see you trying and there is some progress, I think its clear that the gaps we talked about early in our process are still there. For your sake and mine, I think its time we need to stop trying and get ready to work thru a transition. I know at some level you agree and trust how disappointing this situation is for both of us, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.”      

The beauty of our seven step process is that it allows the employee to see for themselves where their performance falls short and to determine IF they are able and willing to close the gap. When its time to end the process, they may be sad. They may angry. Chances are they will be relieved that the final decision has become obvious.

Our job is to listen, but stay firm on the decision that by now seems clear.

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

We also recommend you come to a termination meeting prepared to provide answers to the employee’s logistical questions…

  • When will they get their last pay check?
  • How will their healthcare benefit plan 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?

For legal and safety reasons, some employers require 2 people to be in a termination meeting.

In Summary…

So there you have it – a 7 step process you can go thru to make sure that when it’s time to get serious about an employee who is falling short in their performance or results, you have a process to actually involve the employee in the final decision. The first 4 steps in the process are actually done in one meeting that clarifies expectations, describes the gap, uncovers the whys behind the gap, and starts the plan to fix the gap. The rest is the normal and routine follow ups, leading up to the final conversation. 

At no time in this 7-step process should you second guess the outcome. Some problem employees will find a way to fix the gap. Others won’t. Your job is to guide them thru the process.        

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 reduces the likelihood that who you hire ends up being an employee who doesn’t meet your expectations. Our RESULTS FOCUSED hiring model incorporates your performance expectations into each step of the hiring process right from the start – making sure each candidate knows what you will expect of them post hire, helping you select the candidate most likely to meet your expectations. Integrating your expectations into your hiring process has a big impact on who you hire, how you prepare them to perform, prepares you for potential gaps and how to deal with them if they do in fact surface.

For more information about PACE’s recruiting and staffing services – in particular the ways our approach to recruiting and staffing is noticeably different from our competitors – we’d love to chat.

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

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