What I Learned from Firing People

It’s time. Your hands are clammy. Crazy nervous. Deep breath for courage. One more throat clear so your voice doesn’t crack. Then you drop the bomb: “We’ve decided to let you go.”

The worst part about being a manager is firing people. I can handle a fair amount of pressure and responsibility, but oh how I hate firing people! Have you ever had to “fire” a volunteer? That’s just mortifying. Unfortunately, anyone in a management role has to face this unpleasant part of their job. As a recent college grad in my first management position, it was particularly challenging for me. Now a few years removed, I appreciate very much what it taught me and how those lessons shaped me as both an employee and leader.


Someone has to be the bad guy. And guess what? It’s not you. If someone is doing so poorly at their job that it necessitates being fired–that’s their problem, not yours. Yes, it sucks. A lot. But in most fields, people don’t get fired the first time they make a mistake or show up late. I worked somewhere that took at least 9 months to fire someone when it was obvious in their first month that they were going to be terrible. Employers don’t want to fire people, it’s a waste of their investment. They will try to keep the employee, help them develop, get on an improvement plan–whatever will help. But it comes down to this: if they want their job, they’ll do their job. If someone is repeatedly not fulfilling requirements, you need to accept that they are either not a good fit or they made poor decisions and you are not to blame.

Set clear expectations. This one was hard for me because I thought I was doing this. There were new-hire training materials, weekly training meetings, and plenty of awesome employees they could learn from. I think my flaw in this was my assumption that everyone worked hard while they were at work. I didn’t realize I had to set a “Do not watch March Madness on the office computer while you’re supposed to be out working with our volunteers” rule. Probably because I shouldn’t have had to set that rule. Or the “Please don’t tell the other volunteers that you want to hire a prostitute” rule. True story. Setting expectations is not micro-managing, it’s part of establishing a work culture that you want to see.

Address issues immediately. This is uncomfortable, but it HAS to be done. As a manager or owner, you need to address issues right away because it affects you and your workplace. When I realized one of my employees was showing up 40 minutes late to his shift every Saturday, I let Mr. Late-guy know that he needed to be on time. And when he continued to be late to that and every single one of his shifts, I let my boss know my plan to let this employee go and he said, “Sounds right to me.” The issue was addressed and he didn’t fix it. If I hadn’t, he could have easily gone to my boss and complained that no one had ever told him there was a problem, or he thought his shift started later, or some other excuse. Face the uncomfortable. Either it will get better or it won’t. If it doesn’t, then at least you can feel better about what you have to do.

If you’re the boss, be the boss. My first position in management was fresh out of college with an organization I’d worked for during college. All of my employees were students. Some of my new employees had actually been my supervisors for a time. Some of them had applied for my position. I even had a crush on one of them a couple of years prior. Suffice it to say, I was intimidated. Heavy on the timid. I loved the work, but it took me a while to feel comfortable in my new boss skin. That made it hard for me to set clear expectations, address issues, and feel like I was the authority in the room. Eventually I realized that if I wasn’t doing those things, then I was hurting myself. Listen to and help your employees, make decisions, be flexible where you can and firm when you need to be. Once I started acting like the boss, I felt more confident in my role and less insecure about addressing the uncomfortable parts.

No more running from comflict! Via Imgur

No more running from conflict! Via Imgur

I never want to be the type of person that enjoys firing people. Who wants that? Weirdos, that’s who. I do, however, want to be a good boss and employee. As with most growing experiences, becoming that type of boss and employee requires some uncomfortable experiences. Though I absolutely hate being the bearer of bad news, having to let people go so early in my working life definitely shaped me and my management style for the better. Hopefully in a way that minimizes the occurrence of clammy hands in the future.


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