As a leader, firing someone is one of the toughest parts of the job. I've had to do it more times than I'd like, and it's always hard. But when an employee is dragging down the team, it's a leader's responsibility to do what's best for the team and the business.

Because firing someone sucks, inexperienced or ineffective managers often choose to retain underperformers. That's problematic for obvious reasons, but it's even worse when they "layer" someone between themselves and the underperformer (for example, inserting a senior manager between the director and an underperforming manager). When a company is growing rapidly, layering can easily happen - so it's something I've learned to be vigilant about.

Layering is worse for the team than retaining an underperformer because it saddles the new hire with a direct report who isn't up to the task. The new hire, burdened with an underperformer, isn't set up for success because her time is disproportionately spent managing the underperformer. She's not able to invest time coaching the rising stars on her team or building her institutional knowledge. It's also unfair to the underperformer who may be more effective in a different role or even at another company.

I've seen layering happen firsthand. Recently, a department lead wasn't seeing the results she wanted from a middle manager, so she proposed adding a more senior employee to her team to manage the underperformer - essentially offloading the burden to someone who had more time. Because we all liked the middle manager and she worked hard, we agreed to the lead's proposal.

As you can probably predict, this didn't work out. Layering didn't solve the underlying problem: performance. It was frustrating to the new hire, and it didn't put the middle manager on a path to success. We had to let her go.

In high-growth companies, there are times when layering is a smart move. When a company is scaling quickly, strong individual contributors are often catapulted into management positions they're not quite ready for. These rising stars benefit from having a more experienced person above them showing them the ropes.

If you're thinking about adding a layer to the team, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Consider the following:

  • The root of the underperformance: Before you decide on next steps, diagnose the problem. Is the underperformance due to a lack of job-critical skills, or is the employee in a new role and learning on the job? Get a gut check; talk with the employee about how she's feeling and check in with stakeholders who have experience working with her.
  • Coaching the employee. Before you make a change to your team, think through what steps you've taken to help the employee course correct. Some performance issues can be fixed through great coaching and regular check-ins. If you're a new manager yourself, get some coaching from more seasoned managers on how to do this effectively.
  • Your motivation. Hiring and firing decisions can be emotionally charged, so it's important to be honest about your motivation. Are you seeking to bring on a senior person to coach new talent or fix an ongoing performance issue?
  • Your resources. Especially if you're leading a small company or team, consider if you have the resources to bring on a new team member to coach an employee with high potential or if there are other ways you can invest in her success. If it's a true performance issue, think through the resources you'll reserve if you replace the employee, versus hiring another employee to manage her.

As a leader, the most challenging decisions you'll make will probably be about people. But it's important to remember that propping underperformers up with talent isn't doing them any favors. Let them go and make room for rising stars.