Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 most uncomfortable work situations of 2015. See the full list here.
Firing someone is one of the most difficult things many managers ever have to do in their careers. But what about when the person isn’t doing anything wrong exactly, but she’s just not the employee you had hoped for?
Leadership coach Lolly Daskal helps guide us through this difficult conversation.
A little over a year ago, I hired a woman for an entry-level position. She came recommended from a former colleague, and interviewed well. She works really hard, often staying late to finish things, but that’s part of the problem: It takes her much too long to do tasks that I would have expected her to have more mastery over by now. I’ve gone over her strengths and weaknesses at both a six-month and one-year review, and she acted like she understood how she was failing to meet expectations, but each time, she hasn’t improved. I feel like I’ve made an effort to help her succeed, but I don’t have the time to babysit her and teach her how to get better at her job.
I don’t want to have to fire her, because I do get the sense that she’s doing her best; I’m just afraid that her best isn’t good enough. Is there any other way to approach the situation?
Thanks for your help.
Good for you for reaching out and asking how to deal with your employee. It’s not so hard to fire someone when they are not doing their work and not even trying. But when they are making every effort and genuinely working hard, it’s part of your responsibility to give them every opportunity to be successful. Here’s a plan for working through it:
Tell her the truth. As her employer, you owe it to her to tell her the truth–and you owe it to yourself. Make a list of your expectations of what the job requires, and ask her if she feels she is performing up to par. If she says yes, tell her what more you need in terms of speed and performance; if she says she is struggling, thank her for her candor and explain to her what the job requires in terms of proficiency.
At the same time, ask if there are contingencies you aren’t aware of that may be affecting her performance–for example, it may be that other employees are interrupting her work for you with outside demands, or that she has inadequate technology or supplies.
Set a time for a follow-up meeting in a couple of weeks to a month, with the understanding that her performance is being closely observed.
If the problems continue, offer her a joint agreement of terms of benchmarks for improvement over a timeline of a few months, with the understanding that if the improvements aren’t made, you will be letting her go.
Frame it as an opportunity. Of course, you don’t have to offer her Plan A if you know the end result. But it might make her feel that you are giving her one last chance and offering her an opportunity for growth. If possible, support her through the process with training or other resources. Knowing that someone is investing in your development can be very motivating.
If she doesn’t agree to Plan A—or if it doesn’t seem feasible to you—let her know that there are better options out there for her and that she should begin looking. Encourage her to take a new path that’s better suited to her strengths and to treat this experience as a chance for growth rather than a failure. Let her know that she can continue in her current position while she is transitioning, but give her an end date.
Be respectful, always. Whether you end up with Plan A or Plan B, make sure you treat her and the process fairly and respectfully. You want her to be able to say you were admirable and fair, even if the outcome is bad.
Once you’ve established Plan A or Plan B, don’t hesitate to carry out the consequences of the plan. Give your people every chance, but once it’s done, vacillation and delay will only hurt your standing and make the rest of your team nervous and unhappy.
Remember you’re being watched. Any time you’re disciplining or firing an employee, the rest of your team is bound to be paying close attention and drawing conclusions about how they might be treated–another reason to bend over backward to be fair and compassionate.
The bottom-line key is to be honest, give people options, show respect, and make the transition as smooth as possible. In the end, it should be about opportunity, not failure.
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