One of the biggest and most frequent mistakes I have observed is when companies are quick to hire and slow to fire.

Quick to hire is a topic for another day; for now, let’s focus on slow to fire. It sounds a bit harsh, especially for someone in human resources like me (we’re often stereotyped as being especially compassionate or having great empathy).

However, taking too long to fire someone can have a significant negative effect on the company as a whole. Your customers or clients may be frustrated by dealing with the low-performing employee. Their coworkers may be exhausted from picking up the slack. You may even see top performers leave the organization because you’re not doing anything to address their coworker’s poor performance (Ouch! That’s the worst!).

Companies often take too long to cycle through the firing process. They spend too much time discussing the person and their performance, working around them, avoiding them, or making up for lost productivity. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you terminate employees after one mistake or one unsuccessful project. Your first step should be to mentor them, coach them, and provide solid, specific information to them about their behavior and performance. But if the behavior is not improving after these discussions, it’s time to move on.   

If you are considering dismissing someone, Jim Collins, the author of the book Good to Great, recommends we ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Would you hire this person again?
  2. Would you be terribly disappointed or relieved if they came to tell you they were leaving to pursue an exciting opportunity?

If your answer is no to one or both of these questions, that’s an indication that termination is the right choice. 

I suggest we add two more questions to Jim Collins’ questions: 

  1. If this person left, would those who work most closely with them want you to re-hire them? (people who work for or side-by-side with this person are the best to ask; they can fool their supervisor, but rarely can they fool the team)
  2. Would the people around them feel terribly disappointed or relieved if they left?

My first experience letting someone go was in 1994, and I was 30 years old. Not only was I 25 years younger than this employee, but I was also her replacement. The conversation went about as well as I would have hoped.

About a month after our discussion, I saw the employee I had let go at the local mall. I wanted to hide, but I could see her walking directly toward me. Honestly, I was afraid she might yell at me or even hit me, but she gave me a giant hug.

She told me being fired was one of the best things to happen to her. She was not happy in the role, which made her less productive and less engaged. After finding a new role, a better role, making more money, she realized how good it was that she was let go. She said I gave her the boost she needed to get out and move on.

Unfortunately, I have had these conversations many times since that day in 1994. Most of them were a bit uncomfortable and awkward, and I was still a bit nervous every time, but I also thought of that hug at the mall, and I knew that almost every single person would find a new role that was a better role for them.  They were all (well, mostly) good people with great skills; they might not have been successful in their role at the time, but they found their success elsewhere. 

So, next time you are wondering if it’s time to part ways:

  1. Ask yourself the Jim Collins questions
  2. Focus on the person, not on how hard it will be for you, how much you like them, or whether you will hurt their feelings
  3. Think about how the person may be impacting the work, culture, or people around them
  4. Spend most of your time on your top performers, not worrying, debating, and talking about low performers
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