Principles for Letting People Go

Principles For Letting People Go

Letting people go is never a pleasant task. But if you have the right mentality and principles regarding it, not only will it become easier to do over time, you’ll come to see its vital importance in helping your organization perform at its best. Your organization will only be at its best if it has the right people in the right positions.


It is possible to hire great people but find them to be poor fits in your organization. Great managers take extreme ownership and when they see underperformance, they look at themselves first and ask:

Did I give clear expectations upfront? Did this person understand everything that the position demanded?

Did I give them the proper resources to meet those expectations? Were they on board properly? Did they meet people essential to their success?

Were those expectations specific? Did we discuss specific goals to be achieved in the first 90 days in the position?

If the answer to any of these questions was no, then the fault partially lies with the manager. This doesn’t mean that you might not let someone go in the light of all the information you may have, but it means you failed in your job as a manager.

90 Days – A Guide, not a Rule

Many companies in many countries adhere to some sort of probationary period (often 90 days) in which either the employee or the employer can leave the firm without fault or blame to either. This protects employers from bad hires but it also protects employees from poor cultural fits.

But on the management side, the principle should not be to wait and see how the 90 days goes. If someone is not performing, and clearly not performing early on, there is no need or reason to wait 90 days. You could let someone go as quickly as 14 or 21 days. What matters is what his/her work ethic, relationship with peers, and outcomes look like.

Keep in mind that if someone has been given all that they need to succeed in a position (as alluded to above) and is still underperformance, he/she is probably not happy or comfortable in the role. You’re not happy with the performance. So that means the firing will be the end of that unhappiness. You will be freeing them up to pursue something that is a better fit, and you will be free to find someone who will perform better in that position. Your last act of leadership with them is to handle the firing itself in a way that shows leadership:

Do it yourself. Leaders don’t outsource difficult decisions or situations. In the conversation be decisive and direct, but empathetic as well.

Take ownership. Don’t refer to someone else telling you to let them go, let them know you own this decision. This may not make it any easier for them, but they will respect you more.

Gross Misconduct

Every company has different policies for what precisely constitutes gross misconduct, but suffice it to say that any time an employee, new or otherwise, steps outside of the values of the company (or that of civilized society) with intent to be outside of those values, he/she has to be let go. These conversations, unlike the ones above, do not need to come with any explanations, and often they need to come swiftly to make sure there is no lasting damage to company morale. People may want to argue, but don’t engage. Find a way to bring the conversation to an end.

It should go without saying that in all these circumstances, if you are letting someone go at the moment that you have a conversation with them their email and security access need to be shut down so as not to cause further problems. This is a technical side of the modern workplace that has to be executed in concert with your conversation: make sure it happens.

Staff Facing Challenges

Sometimes experienced and reliable staff will underperform for personal reasons. You may know they are going through challenges at home or with family. Take time to talk with them and show empathy. They have earned an understanding that a new employee has not. If they need an extra personal day or the chance to work from home, do your best to accommodate them. Monitor the situation to see if this is a long-term change or simply a challenging period. Over a long enough time, frame, almost all your employees will go through a tough time and they will want to feel supported, not afraid, during this time period. If your track record shows understanding during challenging personal times, they will be even more likely to open up to you when such times happen to them.

Final Thoughts

No one ever looks forward to firing. But the best managers accept it as another component of their work, and look at it as just another way to show leadership and empathy.

Interested in more management principles? Check out my Management Course.