I've had many managers report to me across my career as a leader and CEO. And over the years, many of those managers have come to me at different times to express a keen desire to fire one of their own direct reports.
And every time that happened, I always reacted in the exact same way. I tell my manager, "Sure, you can fire anyone you want. But let me first ask you a question...."
And the question I would ask is:
"If I called up the person the manager wanted to fire, would that person know that he or she was at risk of losing their job?"
If the answer was no--that the employee in question had no idea they were about to be let go--then my manager simply wasn't doing their job.
That's because the best gift you can ever give an under-performing employees is honest feedback about how they are performing as well as the coaching they might need to elevate their performance. That's your obligation as their manager. If you haven't established the goal line for acceptable performance with them, how can you hold them accountable for their performance? It's up to you to make it clear to them what's at stake--whether that be a raise, a bonus, or even the security of their job.
Beyond being good business, this is simply the human thing to do. If you weren't performing well enough, you'd want to know and be given some time to get better. If that didn't work out - so be it. But everyone wants that chance.
I clearly remember one instance where my VP of marketing came into my office, shut the door, and told me flat out he wanted to fire one of the people in his department--let's call him Joe. And that's exactly when I asked my question: Sure you can fire Joe. But what would happen if I go talk to Joe; does he know he's about to be fired? After a few seconds of stammering, my VP admitted that, no, Joe would have no idea where that was coming from.
So we turned this into a coaching opportunity where I asked my VP to go to Joe and make it very clear that he needed to elevate his performance. The good news is that from that point on, Joe's starting performing far better than he ever had. While he wasn't quite an A player, he was a solid B, maybe even a B plus, and he played a key role on our team. In other words, taking the simple step of being clear about performance and consequences saved a good employee.
The key point here is that as managers, we need to look inside before we look outside. The best part is that when you communicate your expectations well, poor performers will often weed themselves out by leaving on their own while the people who really do want to stay will give you all that they can.
So remember, before you make the decision to fire anyone, remember to ask that question--you might be surprised at the answer you get.
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