You are firing people too late


Mansoor Khan

about 9 minutes Mar 12, 2024

Two years ago, I fired an employee for the first time. It took me 6 months to make that decision, with many pushes by my manager.

Today I’m going to discuss:

  1. How to know if you should fire someone
  2. Why is it so hard for managers?
  3. My personal struggles with it
  4. The price everyone pays for your indecision
  5. Tips for making it easier

How to know if you should fire an employee

Deep inside, you know. When you start to consider it, it’s probably already too late. From this great article:

Most people consider their first 90 days on a job to be a “honeymoon period.” You should bust this myth as soon as possible.
Those first three months are when you really get to understand people and what they’re about.
This is the time when you should be paranoid and take the time to make those little adjustments when something feels weird. Don’t just let things slide.

"If you're lying awake at night thinking, ‘God, Jeff is pissing me off,’ your chance at a low-cost solution probably came about three months to a year ago," Lopp says. "You had the chance to improve things but you sat and waited until it actually started to hurt."

The longer someone works for you, the harder it is to change their behavior.

Netflix follows a harsh guideline - the “keeper test”. If your employee says they want to quit, will you fight to keep them? If not – it means you should fire them. This is almost impossible for most of us to live by. We don’t pay the top-of-the-market like Netflix, and don’t hire only senior engineers like they did.
While we have our own rockstars, you probably just can’t fire everyone who doesn’t pass the keeper test.

In my opinion, there is a softer version, which is the ‘relief test’. If you imagine the scenario of an employee quitting, and you feel relieved, and not upset – that’s a sign you need to let them go.

 Why is it so hard for managers?

 Usually, it’s one of 3 cases:
You hired someone not suitable for the role. 
You didn’t provide clear expectations, or enough mentoring to achieve them.
  1. The requirements for the role changed, and the person no longer fits it.

    In all of the cases – YOU are to blame for the situation, and it SHOULD be a hard decision for you. Firing someone you don’t give a shit about is easy, but most (good) managers care about their people.  You’ve built a relationship with every one of them, and maybe even grabbed a beer together after work a couple of times. You know how rejected and humiliated they’ll feel, and you just can’t make that decision. 

    In addition, every time you are getting close to making that decision, the employee makes some improvement, which restores your belief in their potential.
All good managers should believe that people can improve and change – but make sure you don’t confuse an employee’s potential with your inability to make a hard decision – I definitely did.  

My personal struggles with it

I was a fresh manager and I made many mistakes in the process. I hope this story will help you avoid them…

Take #1 - the start - first 2 months

Harry was hired for a 100% remote role, and the start was promising. He quickly caught on, and after a month he was already taking complex tickets and delivering them in an adequate quality.
Then his progress slowed. His estimations started to climb, and sometimes he completely disappeared for 3-4 hours during the day. Finally, when he didn’t appear at the daily and didn’t respond to any message until 4 PM, I had enough, and decided to talk to him about it.
I should have had that conversation right after the first time he disappeared. I was sure it was only a case of misalignment of expectations. He was very smart, so I felt that with a few conversations, I could get him on track.

Take #2 - improvement and relapse - 3-5 months

We had a serious talk. I said that it was completely unacceptable, and he agreed (said he was playing video games until 6 AM and missed the alarm clock).
I said that I was willing to adjust - if he wants to work at later hours, I’m fine with it, as long as he is available during core hours and keeps me updated.
We finished on a positive note, I felt it was a one-time thing, and we are back on track.
Another month went by, and it was decent. The time estimations were reasonable, and he completed most of his tasks on time.
I started to let go a bit, and didn’t bother him with messages during the day. I didn’t want to be a micro-manager…
Then I started to see a pattern on the daily standup. He mentioned he was stuck on some problem, and when I offered to help, he waved it off and said he’d finish it soon.
The next day, he said he fixed the problem and was moving on. I was surprised as it should have taken an hour at most to fix, not a whole day.
I shared it with my manager, and he said we should fire him, as he is just buying himself free time during the day, by raising minor problems he could justify spending his time on. I said that maybe he had bad habits from the previous workplace, and it’s just a question of building good habits.

Take #3 - the final straw - 6-7 months

I had another conversation with Harry, saying that we can’t continue like that. I said something along the lines of: “We expect more from a senior developer. I’m willing to spend the time and help you get there, but I need to know you are interested in doing the work”.
He said that he was, and that it was just the usual friction of getting started in a new place, and that he’s sure he’ll improve quickly.
During the next sprint, I decided to micromanage, to help him get on track. Each day, I send him messages every 2-3 hours to see the progress.
This awful approach worked well, and he caught on and stopped being ‘stuck’ on minor problems.
A month went by, and I got tired of babysitting, and let go.
It lasted 2 weeks. Once he saw I wouldn’t be bothering him during the day, he again disappeared for 3-4 hour stretches and tried to inflate the estimations of tickets.
At this stage, I STILL BELIEVED he can be a great developer. He was smart, capable, and a nice guy. He was just lazy and didn’t want to work that much - a poor fit for a small startup.
At this point, I finally decided to let Harry go.

The price everyone pays because of you

I haven’t yet encountered a case when a manager regretted firing an employee (for performance reasons). My regret was only that I didn’t do it sooner.
I believe EVERYONE has a job they can thrive at, and it’s your job to help your employees get there. But when you are stuck in the “I believe they have potential” stage for AGES, everyone suffers.

The employee suffers

If you don’t want to get punched, don’t say “I think this is the right move for you, I’m sure you’ll do great in another place!”. As hard as it is for you, it’s much harder for the person you fire. People need a paycheck, and looking for a job is not fun. Still, coming every day to a job where you are not doing well, sucks.

You suffer

Trying to help someone thrive when deep inside you know they won’t – is exhausting. You have no energy left for anything else.

The team suffers

Working with mediocre people is demotivating. Once I let Harry go, the atmosphere in the team improved – even though they liked him. Everyone understood the decision.

Tips for making it easier

Getting fired always feels personal and humiliating. But think about it this way - every time an employee quits, they ‘fire’ the company. It usually doesn’t mean it’s a terrible company, it just means it’s not the right fit for them at the time. This freedom to quit anytime, guilt-free, has its price.
Don’t let guilt dictate your decisions.
To know you did everything right, following these steps:
  1. Feedback needs to be immediate. As soon as they step off the path, let them know. Ideally, during the first 90 days, give people an excessive amount of feedback.
  2. Be very specific. Give examples of the mistakes people are making and how things would look different if they changed their behavior.
  3. When you tell them something is wrong, have them repeat it back to you until what they’re saying matches what you mean. Too often people think they know what is expected of them, but still fail to meet expectations.
  4. Take the threat out of it. One of the worst things about performance improvement plans is that they’re surrounded by an air of doom. This causes people to either push back and have a bad attitude, or feel hopeless and unable to put in their best effort.
  5. Write things down. “You should write a well-defined list of things that you can measure. The employee should be able to see for himself that they are succeeding. You should be able to see the changes that result from this process.”
  6. Be patient. “Changing behavior is a lot of work. A lot of people assume it’s impossible. But by investing in feedback and having hard conversations, you can do it, and it's often worth it.”
Remember, 50% of people who are put on performance improvement plans become repeat offenders. Smart employees, like Harry, know how to rise to the occasion.
If you don’t want to have a mediocre team, you must be able to make hard decisions.

Source: Originally posted here.

Category:  Misc