Five Questions Before You Fire Someone

Five Questions Before You Fire Someone
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read

Firing people stinks.  Firing people poorly really stinks.


I know, because I’ve done both.


Firing always seems like a failure.  But in reality, helping someone move on well from a place where they are not succeeding, freeing them up to find a place where they can thrive, can be a gift.


But even as I say that, I admit, it will NOT feel that way.  Not for a while.


So when you are considering the powerful step of firing someone, pause and work through these five questions, so that you can make sure firing is the right thing to do.


One:  Will this come as a surprise to them?

If the answer is yes, then this firing is probably your fault.  Scratch that, it IS your fault.  Because surprise firings means that you have failed to do regular reviews, effective evaluations, and created clarity around what it takes to succeed.  And if the firing is purely financial (“it’s not you, it’s us"), then still, regular communication should have been preparing people.


Sure, there is always the chance that you have been as crystal clear as the Rocky Mountain Runoffs, and the employee still never got the memo.  But the other 98.7% of the time–this is on you.  


So if this is a surprise firing, at least explore the idea of the 45 day turnaround.  This is where you sit the employee down and say 4 things:

  1. This is what we need from you.  
  2. This is where you currently are.  
  3. This is what it will take to get there.  
  4. Are you willing to take these steps in the next 45 days to demonstrate movement towards here?”  


Give them the weekend to come back with an answer,  If they say yes, then create a CURE PLAN (a plan to rectify an issue) to move them towards realignment.  If they say no, then together create an exit plan.


Two: Is this a competence issue or a cultural violation issue?

When you are facing a competence issue, and you have a teachable person (like the person who says yes to the 4 sentences in the 45 day turnaround), then go SLOW.

When you are facing a cultural violation issue, where this person demonstrated repeated violations of your core values and culture, then go FAST.

I will coach, coach, coach a person who is willing to change and grow.  Remember the old story of the employee who made a $1,000,000 mistake and thought they would be fired.  But their boss came and said, “Stick around, we just invested a million bucks in you.”

But my number one firing failure is thinking that I could sway someone who was not on board with our values.  I once had a staff member who disagreed with several of the ways our team was operating.  No problem.  But they sat on those observations for two years, sharing them with family and friends but never telling the team.  Big problem.  When I finally confronted them they said, “I thought you would fire me for speaking up.”  I replied, “I would have fired you for NOT speaking up.”  Because that turf-building attitude was a major team violation.

Going slow on values violations hurts your credibility with the rest of the team, big-time.  They make your values a joke, and smack of preferential treatment.  Decide which one is the real issue before you fire.

Three:  Do you have your ducks in a row?

Have you spoken to HR?  Do you need to talk to an attorney?  Have you explored options for severance?  

Do you have documentation?  Do you have witnesses to the issues, or are these all inside your “gut?”  By the way, when you start documenting behavior, that is a sure sign the slide has begun.  Time for the 45 day turnaround.  

Is this going to be a firing, or a resignation?  Will this be a slow exit, where they have time to save face and find a new position, or will it be fast (see Two above).

It is naive to think that even in a faith based organization, that people will take firing well.  Here is a rule of thumb:  Unless a job separation is their idea, and they have a plan lined up for what’s next, they will struggle with how it goes down.  Your best laid plans might, I mean, WILL change in a firing situation.  But still this is a time when you hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Four:  Have you counted the cost ?

Sometimes the cost of letting someone go is higher than keeping them, at least in the short run.  Think about the football teams who cut/traded an underperforming QB, only to have their replacement struggle or get injured.  That underperforming QB starts to look pretty good. 

Do you know what the replacement cost will be?  Would that time, money, reputation hit be better present investing in trying to help them get back on track?

For example, a sad observation I’ve made is when a youth pastor is let go, the reverberations ripple through at least two full classes of students.  Does that mean you hold on to a staffer who is failing at their job?  No, but it should give you pause.

Note to the leader:  Remember that from your seat at the top, you often see what others cannot.  I was on staff where the music minister needed to move on.  Everyone knew it, but the Pastor wouldn't pull the trigger.  See, that minister was two years from retirement, and in the eyes of the Pastor, letting a beloved staff person go was a cost too high at the time. The Pastor could see value in retaining this team member where the rest of us could not.

Five:  Who needs to be prepared?

Don’t face this alone.  Make a list of who needs to know before the firing.  Do you have key staff that need to know?  Is there a reporting structure that needs to be in the loop? Does your board need to know? Boards do not have hiring or firing authority over anyone but the point leader, but having their wisdom on your side may prevent a slew of issues.  

Note, this does not mean you share weeks out, but that you trust key people enough to not surprise them.  Nothing undermines your leadership more than when it looks like people who should have been in the loop, were not.  It paints you as a gunslinger.

By the way, your congregation will want to know three things:  1. Why was this person fired?  2.  How does this impact us?  3. What will you do about it now ?  Your answers may not satisfy, but you need to have them be truthful, discreet, clear, and consistent. 

I'd love to talk with you more about this. Shoot me an email and let's figure out what's next with your team today.

Photo by Flex Point Security Inc. on Unsplash

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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