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A founders guide to firing someone for the first time

3rd Jul 2019 | 10:00am

Editor’s Note: Each week, Fast Company presents an advice column by Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay. Webb offers candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

Q. I know I need to fire one of my employees. It’s my first firing. How do I do it?
– Founder of a startup

Dear Founder,

I interviewed for my first management job at IBM when I was in my late twenties. My boss’s boss asked me if I could fire someone, and I replied, “Yes, but I will never have to.” He laughed in my face. Then he asked me why. I explained that most people wanted to do a good job and with the right coaching and the right manager they would blossom. Somehow, I still got the job.

Now, several decades later, I’ve personally had to fire or lay off a fair amount of people—thousands if you count organizations that I managed. It’s never fun, but it’s almost always necessary.

Too often, we accept mediocrity. I routinely ask leaders to look at their teams and decide which of the people they would hire again if they had an open position. Sadly, the number is usually not 80% or higher. Remember, performance is not a static thing. Someone may be a great performer early and then check out later. Or their role or priorities may shift over time. The best startups demand out-performance at all times, and if something starts to go south, take steps to correct it quickly.

Most people wait too long to fire someone. That’s a problem because most great performers become very frustrated having to deal with the fallout that comes from having to deal with colleagues who are not performing up to expectations. They expect that good managers and leaders will not allow that situation, and they will applaud it being resolved as long as it is done humanely.

Here are my recommendations:

·Do not put this off. The situation has to be addressed immediately.

·Project how it will be when this is over. I’ve always found that the act of thinking about firing someone was far worse than the actual act of doing so.

·Look back; have you done your job to set the person up for success? If so, keep moving. If not, do you think that you can effectively set them up for success? And are you and the team willing to try? If so, put the person on an improvement plan with clear expectations and checkpoints. If not, again, keep moving, but next time do a better job of setting your people up for success.

·Treat the person well on the way out. Be firm on why they are being let go but explain what you are doing to help them. Let them resign if they desire, and still give them whatever severance you were prepared to give them after firing them. Let them propose the message they want to share. Some people may prefer it to look like they voluntarily resigned. Let them opt out.

·Understand that how people are treated when being fired or placed under performance review is important for the people who are staying. They are projecting themselves into that situation. A long time ago I had a boss who was fast and furious when it came to firing people. One time, he fired one of my employees so quickly—and without telling me—that the guy ran out, leaving his boots behind in his desk drawer. Don’t go into “Smoking Boots Mode.” It creates lots of drama, leaves a big gap you have to fill, and introduces lot of fear. Remember, how you fire people carries repercussions for everyone else. Use the Golden Rule and treat everyone way want you’d like to be treated—even (and especially) on the way out.

·Think what you will say as a reference—and talk about it. Having this kind of dialogue is a good way to ensure a smooth transition that will work for both sides.

·After it’s done, be open with your team. Be willing to answer questions without disparaging the individual.

·Find someone great to fill the role being vacated. As difficult as it is to let someone go, understand that this is a great opportunity for someone else. Give one of your stars a chance to take it on. Give someone on the team the chance to step up and learn and grow.

·Commit to doing even better on the next hire.

I’m sorry that you have to go through this. I’m glad that you’re stepping up to it—it’s one of the most important pieces of your job, and one that too often is not done very well.