Let the Wrong One Go

Clear Feedback and Compassionate Firing

Christina Wodtke
Nov 11, 2018 · 6 min read

The biggest problem with firing is we’re afraid to do it. If you’ve watched Up In the Air, you probably have a picture in your head of what a bad firing can look like. People cursing at you, crying, throwing things.

What we don’t make a movie of, though, is letting a bad person continue to work with good people, demotivating them, depressing them. Good people will quit and leave for other companies. Maybe they “only” switch to another part of the company in order to avoid the person you should have fired. Eventually you have a team of people no one else wants. It’s a boring slog into mediocrity. This story ends with you, bad manager, getting fired yourself.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you firing is necessary, let’s move to thinking of it as potentially positive. First we must reframe the PIP. PIP is an acronym for Performance Improvement Plan. When we use acronyms all the time, we often forget what the original words were. (OKRs anyone?) PIP has come to mean “firing someone very slowly with lots of documentation so we don’t get our asses sued.” We have to take back the original meaning — performance improvement plan.

The long walk toward change starts with anger. Or frustration. You ask yourself, “Why does that person keep doing that thing???”

Next you have to interrogate yourself about your role in the problem. “Have I given clear feedback that this behavior needs to change or there will be consequences?”

“Well, I did say I was really upset when he delivered the report late.”

“But were there consequences?”

“I had to reschedule with my boss, and that made our team look disorganized. We ended up being taken off the list for the launch.”

“Did he know that was a problem?”

“No. I didn’t want to be confrontational. In fact, I gave him a bonus at the performance review because I didn’t want him to be upset.”

STOP.

You are the one that needs to improve your performance.

Step One: when an undesired behavior occurs, you must tell the person about it AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, and show consequences of the action.

Examples: A late delivery from a designer means a front-end engineer has to stay up all night to try to make the deadline. Interrupting the marketing person in meetings all the time means she won’t help your team anymore. Calling everyone on the team guys or dude is making the female team members uncomfortable, and we don’t want them to leave because they are talented. Refusing to compromise your vision means the list of people who will work with you is shrinking.

If you have a company lawyer and/or HR this is a good time to get advice about what is and is not a firing offence at your company. As well, there are some offences so egregious you don’t put someone on a PIP, you simply fire them. This can include theft, sexual harassment and more, but I am not a lawyer so go find one and make sure you are doing the right thing.

Step Two: If the undesired behavior doesn’t disappear over night (and sometimes it does!) up the stakes. Make sure that the person you’re coaching understands that if they don’t change, they may have to leave the company. Start documenting incidents, if you have not already.

A short word about documenting: only document behaviors. You cannot fire someone for having a bad attitude. You can fire someone for repeatedly bad mouthing the company, skipping meetings, chronic lateness and more (again, talk to HR/ your lawyer.) You need to give the problem employee clear behavior to change, because it’s unfair to ask someone to change something whose criteria is “I’ll know it when I see it.” Vague complaints also leaves you open to litigation. “ You have a bad attitude” can be interpreted as “I am sexist/racist/ablist and I just don’t like you.” In the state of California, you cannot fire someone for having a mental illness, and a bad attitude and depression can sometimes look alike. Stick with clear, unambiguous evidence of undesirable behavior. Again, I am not a lawyer. Get one.

Step Three: Ok, the individual is still refusing to change. Putting a person on a PIP is often a wake up call. It sends a message that you were serious when you said that change was required, not advised. Many motivated employees will respond well to a PIP. They may initially be upset, but having a opportunity to change bad habits is a career maker.

There are three kind of problem employees

  • Those who don’t know their behavior is a problem. Feedback fixes this.
  • Those who do not want to change. Being put on a PIP will either change their mind or encourage them to take their talents elsewhere.
  • Those who can’t change. If they don’t see the axe coming at the end of the ninety day PIP and find another job, you’ll have to wield it. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between those who cannot change (perhaps because of deeply held beliefs or lack of a key talent, like empathy) and those who don’t want to. It doesn’t matter. At the end of a PIP, the person either has changed or they have not. And if they have not changed, or chosen to leave of their own free will, you have to escort them to the door. It’s for the good of the team.

If someone does move to another part of the company, be sure to pass on what you know to the new manager. I passed off a problem employee early in my career because I was a wimp, and I paid for it later when my peer held a grudge for not giving him the heads up. It’s immoral to pass on your problems, and if that isn’t enough to motivate you, it will bit you on the bum later. What goes around comes around, often with interest.

HR or legal should walk you through the company’s firing process. No matter what they say, don’t do it alone. It’s best to have someone sit in the room with you as you deliver the bad news, both as a witness and in case someone unexpected happens.

Be brief, be compassionate, be clear. Reference the PIP results, and offer any package (severance pay) that is appropriate. All companies do this differently, so you’ll want to consult your boss and HR. If you are a startup CEO without these capabilities, find a lawyer. (I know, I keep repeating myself. But four paragraphs down, I continue to not be a lawyer.)

Only you know if person needs to be walked to the door or can be allowed to gather up their things unsupervised. When in doubt (and without company policy) stay with them while they pack up. A moment of anger or resentment can lead to unexpected retribution. Or at least some epic office supply thievery. Be pleasant and social, but professional. The urge to hide is strong, but put on your big girl pants and see the firing to its end.

A very long time ago, I worked with a manager who put a problem employee on a PIP three times. It made her crazy that should couldn’t fire him, but he kept shaping up long enough to get out of the PIP and then would slide back into old habits. Finally, during the third PIP he quit and went to work for another company. There, he build a transformative product that made his company do very very well. Then he started his own software company that got bought by a different very wealthy company. Sometimes the person is the problem, but sometimes the problem is fit. Sometimes being kicked out of a place where you struggle is a gift. Not always. But sometimes.

George Clooney’s “corporate hatchet man” character in Up in the Air points out to people that a firing is a moment to acknowledge that where they are has been proven to be a bad fit. He challenges them to reexamine their life choices and make new ones.

It’s important to remember you didn’t ruin someone’s life. You were clear about what the team needed from the team member, and they were unwilling to give it. Now it’s time for you to find someone who will help the team excel, and for the other person to find a way forward past their bad habits and toward a better fit.

What isn’t fair is to suddenly fire someone without ever letting them know what they did wrong. This is cruel and easy and I want you to promise me it’ll never be you. Everyone deserves to a chance to be their best self.

Christina Wodtke

Written by

Designing business, and the business of design. www.eleganthack.com

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