There’s no more challenging job than being the person who has to fire people. Everyone else gets to talk about what a tight-knit, stick-together group the company is (just like a “family” of friends), but you’re the one who has to deliver the bad news over and over again. It’s not easy or always popular to be the boss, but then good leadership isn’t a popularity contest. If you were unpopular in high school, you’re already one step ahead of the game.
But the fact is, your company is only as good as its weakest employee. Here are the folks you need to fire - sooner rather than later.
No effort, no heart. Sometimes it’s a breeze. We try to immediately fire any employee who doesn’t try or doesn’t care. These are the cardinal sins in a start-up, so there isn’t much angst in letting these folks go. Then the job gets harder.
All effort, no results. The next tier of troublesome employees are those who try hard but just cannot do the job. They are totally sincere, but incapable (or no longer capable) of doing the job that needs to get done. There are good people who are perfectly able to do a job poorly for a very long time before anyone has the time, interest, or guts to ask the hard questions about results rather than effort. These people need to go too, but you need to be fair and firm with them. Do them a real favor and tell them the truth.
Poor fit. Then there are the employees who are basically hard-working and dedicated, but who (for better or worse) can’t fit into the corporate culture. Every business that I’ve been involved with has ultimately been about hard work mixed with a healthy dose of paranoia. We had lots of ways to reflect this ethic and plenty of signs all over the place. “Hard work conquers everything.” “Effort can trump ability.” “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone's not out to get you.” And so on. And almost everyone we hired got the message and drank the Kool-Aid. Even the people who just wanted a “job” pretty much worked their butts off.
But every so often, we’d hire someone who was just too healthy and well-adjusted to succeed among our tribe of crazies. We used to say that a relaxed man is not necessarily a better man. In one business, our internal motto was “let our sickness work for you.” It turned out that it was important to let the other people see you sweat even the smallest details. That way, they knew you cared. If you weren’t just a little bit crazy about the work and the business, you were slightly suspect or worse.
I remember one former employee who wrote me a long letter asking for a more complete explanation of why he didn’t succeed with us. Here is part of what I wrote:
Our company is [on] a very fast track, run by a bunch of workaholic perfectionists. We all believe that that’s what it takes to win against pretty fierce odds. And this is simply not the right place for everyone - especially people who want to have a family, outside interests and a normal life. I think it’s very likely that you’re simply too nice and too well-adjusted to work with the crazies around here and that’s shame on us - not you. But it’s the way things are. We wish you all the best.
Ultimately, all of these situations come down to a basic choice. You can make one person miserable when they lose their job, or you can end up with a crappy company where everyone’s miserable because you don’t have the guts to do the right things for the business. Once you start to carry people along who aren’t performing, you take a tremendous double hit. Yes, you pay the price for the poor performer’s activities, but that’s nothing compared to the real harm. As soon as you fail to consistently fire non-performers, you start to lose your best people. That’s what kills the company.