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How to Fire Underperformers (And Minimize the Consequences)

How you handle personnel moves sends a strong signal to the rest of your team — and even to future job candidates.

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BY Workpop - 01 Dec 2017

How to Fire Underperformers (And Minimize the Consequences)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

We all want to hire great candidates, and fill our staffs with brilliant, indefatigable and collaborative employees. But no recruiter or hiring manager bats 1.000, even if they're asking all the right interview questions. At some point, one of your new hires will prove to be a poor fit for your business -- and it will be time to part ways.

Having "the talk" and firing an employee can be one of the most stressful responsibilities of management. If done poorly, it can also carry any number of risks, including having a negative impact on how you're able to refill the position.

Letting people go during a big layoff is plenty painful, too, and poses its own challenges. These tips are tailored more toward the one-off event of dealing with an underperforming employee. How can you fire the occasional subpar employee without piling up nasty reviews on Glassdoor -- which may deter your next great job candidate?

Here are five ways to make it work:

1. Communicate beforehand.

Make sure you haven't just been silently stewing about an employee's underwhelming performance -- or something even less quantifiable like "cultural fit." Regardless of what is legally required in terms of documentation or probationary periods, it's a best practice to have transparent and direct conversations with employees well before you make the decision to let them go.

Give them a chance to improve, and find a plausible path forward. Then, if it doesn't work out, the employee is less likely to feel blindsided, and may thus be less likely to burn bridges on the way out.

2. Show up in person.

Some things shouldn't be delegated; firing someone is one of them. There was some murmuring earlier this year that millennials prefer being fired over text message, but even if you believe the study in question, it's still only one in eight millennials who feel that way. Don't dump the duty on an assistant manager or pass it off to HR.

You will likely want HR in the room with you, of course, and, in many cases, leading the conversation relating to the "now what?" logistics. There are practical and legal reasons to have multiple people present for the meeting. But if you've made the decision, you're the one who should deliver the bad news.

3. Be empathetic, but not dramatic.

Your soon-to-be former employee may have been a thorn in your side, or even the bane of your existence, for months on end. They're still a human being entering an often uncertain and stressful period. Be compassionate, even when the road has been rocky, even if the person being fired was an unapologetic jerk who slept on the job and stole all of your company's La Croix. If the conversation turns tense, don't be baited into back-and-forth finger-pointing.

On the flip side, while you want to be empathetic, you also don't want to be overly dramatic. Don't make it out like it's just as hard for you as the person you're firing; it's not.

4. Don't make empty promises.

Even during a large layoff -- when performance and personal conduct often aren't decisive factors -- managers tend to pay lip service to the idea of proactively helping the newly terminated person find a new landing place. Of course, sometimes the bosses follow through on these promises, but just as often they fade away with no action taken.

When you're firing someone for underperformance, it's not likely that you'll have the impetus to serve as a glowing reference. In some cases, a poor fit for your company may be a perfect hire for a different company or in a different role. But don't let guilt or awkwardness lead you to offer help or agree to give assistance that you are unlikely or unwilling to provide.

5. Don't hide it from the rest of your team.

Your whole company doesn't need -- and legally may not be allowed -- to know all of the nuances behind every personnel decision, but you also don't want to get into the habit of sweeping firings under the rug. That will eventually breed a culture of "who's next?" paranoia.

Address personnel situations openly, but succinctly. If you're firing someone for performance or behavior issues that you are worried may be replicated by others, it's an opportunity to be clear about what you will not accept at your company.