Ready, Aim, Fire: When should you dismiss an employee?

It's never easy, but it is an important part of the Executive Role

You’re Fired! It’s never easy, but it is an important part of the Executive Role

Thankfully it doesn’t happen too often. But every now and again, if you’re doing your job, you will conclude that it’s no longer worth the time and energy trying to help an employee improve. Assuming you’ve done everything in your power to communicate the problem and the consequences of not improving (and it’s still not working), then it’s time to pull the trigger. You are a manager; not a psychiatrist! But, before you organise the execution, make sure that you test your thinking.

Firing Justified? There are 4 indicators that show the process hasn’t worked/is unlikely to work.

  1. There’s been no change at all.
  2. There’s been minimal change.
  3. Performance improved temporarily, but it was short-lived.
  4. Performance is worse than before.

No Change At All: An employee may go through the entire performance improvement process without any change in behaviour.  Some managers internalise this, turning the blame inwards. They see an employees’ failure as a reflection of their own (lack of) managerial skills. They play an endless ‘what if’ game (“What if I moved him to a new role?”; “If the 2013 goals had been crystal clear, would we be looking at a different outcome?”) and so on. However, the central point is that ‘employees own their performance’. Your need to make the goalposts crystal clear and support in every way you can. After that, it’s up to the employee to score the goals (and there’s no spectators allowed on the pitch).

A Little But Not Enough: A little change is more likely than no change at all.  In fact, a small amount of change in an employee can indicate movement in the right direction.  For example, you wouldn’t expect a miserable receptionist to become warm and effusive overnight or a sloppy and disorganised service technician to become the Patron Saint of Neatness. As time passes, however, you should expect to see real improvement.  If the initial small changes in performance don’t eventually morph into larger, significant changes, you may never get the kind of performance you need. Warm the bullet!

Temporary Improvement, But Short-Lived: Sometimes an employee will make dramatic changes immediately after a performance interview.  Instead of arriving 10 minutes late every day, she turns up 20 minutes early. Reports that were overdue for months appear neatly bound on your desk.  Or the employee is no longer the Grinch and is suddenly courteous and helpful.   Dramatic changes like these can look great, but sometimes don’t last very long.   People who make abrupt and dramatic changes in  behaviour are often changing for you rather than for themselves and return to their former habits. The managerial ‘trick’ here is to recognise and reinforce the efforts being made. You want to shift the person ‘up a gear’ and onto the next rung of the performance ladder – if that’s possible. Sometimes, it’s not. Load up the chamber!

Things Actually Get Worse: Every now and then, an employee’s performance will actually get worse following a performance review.  Of course, you may have to take some of the responsibility for this.  It’s possible you did or said something during the interview that confused or upset the employee.  Maybe you committed yourself to something and failed to live up to your end of the bargain.  Whatever the reason, the fact that the individual’s performance gets worse, not better, is something you can’t ignore. Swim back into the performance improvement process and see if this can be corrected; it’s worth one final rescue attempt.

It’s Not Me; it’s You! If you’ve exhausted your toolkit and performance is still dragging along the bottom then it’s time to take on one of the most difficult parts of the executive role. Some people won’t be happy in Heaven. But, you can’t spend all of your managerial life trying to help them overcome ‘issues’. This is not marriage guidance counselling. It’s a divorce and they are leaving the house. It’s tough, but that’s what you are paid to do.

Here’s the rub. If you are 30+, in a managerial role and haven’t fired more than 3 people to date, you may not be doing a great job yourself.  In fact, you may be accepting underperformance rather than tackling this. Hey, take a quick look. Maybe that barrel is pointing towards you. As they say in the Christmas Panto, look out, he’s behind you!

Have a good one


PS: It ‘almost’ goes without saying.  If you have lived with underperformance for some time, another couple of weeks won’t kill you. Don’t fire anyone coming up to Christmas (unless it’s for Gross Misconduct).

PPS Lighter Note: Praying Parrots (you’d need a laugh after that topic). Thanks to Larry McGivern for this one.

A lady goes to her priest and tells him: “Father, I have a problem.I have two female parrots, but they only know how to say one thing.”

“What do they say?” the priest inquired.

“They say, “Hi, we’re hookers! Do you want to have some fun?”

“That’s obscene!” the priest exclaimed. Then he thought for a moment.

“You know,” he said, “I may have a solution to your problem. I have two male talking parrots, which I have taught to pray and read the Bible. Bring your two parrots over to my House, and we’ll put them in the cage with Francis and Peter. My parrots can teach your parrots to praise and worship. Your parrots are sure to stop saying that phrase in no time.”

“Thank you,” the woman responded, “I was at my wits end about this.”

The next day, she brought the female parrots to the priest’s house. As he ushered her in, she saw that his two male parrots were inside their cage holding rosary beads and praying. Impressed, she walked over and placed her parrots in with them. After a few minutes, the female parrots cried out in unison: “Hi, we’re hookers! Do you want to have some fun?” There was stunned silence. Shocked, one male parrot looked over at the other male and exclaimed, “Put the beads away, Frank. Our prayers have been answered.”

Clever Marketing:  Not wanting to take up too much of your time, I normally only attach short video clips. This one is a bit longer (10+ minutes) but worth checking out.  Think about the messaging in terms of how you market yourself internally in your organisation. If you are too busy to look at this, save it for another time.

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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4 Responses to Ready, Aim, Fire: When should you dismiss an employee?

  1. Liam Purcell says:

    Hi Paul, excellent article thanks for that. From my own experience I always found that strapping on the six shooters was the beginning of the end. Be it immediate (& taking the hit) or incremental (inflecting long term internal organisational damage) the outcomes for me never really added value. For some reason or other I always felt that using a formal process to deal with an informal problem never quiet worked out for me. My first port of call developed into a facilitation process (that I now know as Mediation) and this highlighted the pangs of discontent with the organisation, people or processes. I found that early mediated intervention not alone resolved hurt and insignificance but also unlocked the synergy of unparallel innovative team players adding unbelievable value to the whole organisation. Ok Ok I sing the praises of Mediation in the work place, it works.

    • Hi Liam – thanks for the thoughtful response. Mediation is great (where it works) and I’m sold on the core idea that you ‘try everything to make it work’. However, the overall theme was that this is not always possible and you have to be able to take the final sanction of dismissal. I really appreciate you taking the time to send on the note and I’m sure that your comments will be helpful to people who are following this.

      Best wishes


      Paul Mooney PhD. Managing Partner Tandem Consulting P: 01 8330897 M: 087 2439019 Latest Blog…

      • Liam Purcell says:

        Yep, understood that Paul and I agree whole heartily with you and have had the ‘pleasure’ of strapping on the six guns from time to time and blazing away. The rebel in me makes me look at possible collateral damage and my own laziness having to deal with it after. I like to go the extra mile so that my conscience is clear when or if I draw. Not alone am I satisfied the ultimate sanction is warranted but everyone else is too.

  2. I read your blog about 4 indicators that show the process hasn’t worked.It is really some valid points that you have posted .I totally agree with your idea about Its not Me,Its you .

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