By Leslie Wong

Letting go of an employee who is not serving your business any longer isn’t a particularly pleasant experience for any gender. Through conversations with male and female managers, I’ve gathered a sense that women have a harder time with it than men. “What would a man do?” I was rhetorically asked by a woman when I was struggling with letting go of the first hire of my new company.

Spoiler: The act of firing as a female founder, should be no different than firing as a male founder. Whether gender bias is implicit in hiring and firing or not, I’m uncertain. I do know that recognizing when and how to decisively de-hire, is a skill you’ll need in order to develop your greatest asset: your team. 

I’ll admit, I first had to accept that firing didn’t make me a bad person. If you are a manager of people, firing will be an unfortunate and necessary part of your job. If you are building a successful company, you’ll need a team of A players. Identifying the ones who are and aren’t a fit for your culture will be a necessary part of your job, too. The “hire slow and fire fast” philosophy has become as overheard in startups as “move fast and break things”, but hiring slow doesn’t always feel like an option, right? Even if you follow all the steps to hire right, you will inevitably come across a hire who isn’t a good fit.

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re decided what to do about an employee that you suspect isn’t working out. Do you keep or let him or her go? How do you know when you’ve made the right decision? If you decide to let the employee go, what’s the right way to do it? Here are the steps I have taken to help me sort through the same questions.

Step 1: Reflect

Before looking outward and placing blame on an employee, it’s important to look inward and examine your own managerial behavior. Are you providing the employee with what he or she needs to get the job done? Are you clear with the employee and check in with him or her often enough? Did you do a thorough job hiring the employee? These are all questions I have asked myself first when an employee is underperforming. Next, realize that you don’t hold all the answers and set up a meeting with the employee to hear his or her point of view. If you have a culture in which transparency and timely feedback are practiced regularly, these types of questions shouldn’t be shocking. You should be checking in on your employees ‘support levels’ every week, or bi-weekly at least. As a manager, you need to treat your employees like customers. Care and see what they need in order to help themselves get their jobs done. This goes for under-performers and even more so for high-achievers. If you want to learn more about managing under- and over-achievers on a team, I highly recommend reading Monday Morning Leadership.

Step 2: Discuss

As Dr. Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Learn why the employee could be underperforming and keep an open mind as you ask for feedback. An easy place to start is, “I want to make sure you are happy and able to perform to your full potential. How are things going for you?” You’re stating your intention and asking an open-ended question that could provide a completely unexpected answer. During these talks, notice if there are behaviors that are a drain on your team and a waste of your time to try and correct: defensive statements and body language, blame-placing or excuses, and unengaged conversation are clear signs. If you have not had this type of conversation with your employee before you’ve decided to fire, I recommend that you do. A cardinal human resource rule is that firing should never feel like a surprise.

Step 3: Plan

Through one or a series of these conversations, you should be able to see if this employee is an asset or a liability to your team. Before leaving these meetings, have realistic, actionable plans on how his or her performance could improve. Develop them together. Instead of dictating the plan, coach the employee and probe him or her to develop solutions. Whether that solution is you, a fellow team member, a new schedule or system, write it down and decide how you’ll maintain accountability. The same rules as SMART goals apply here, too (SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound). Set short deadlines that make sense so you can see incremental improvement or missed performance, even if the goals are small.

Step 4: Decide

Deciding if an employee should leave your team is entirely subjective. A few considerations that have helped me in the past include 1) the effect on the team 2) the effect on you 3) his or her happiness on your team. If he or she is bringing down the team’s morale and productivity, this is a massive liability. If you find that he or she is underperforming on goals and the time taken is disproportionate to the benefit provided, it’s possible you didn’t define the job well enough before you hired. If you want a crash course on how to hire right, read Who: The A Method for Hiring. In that case, you can decide to keep the person and change the job description. Or de-hire the person and find someone else for the job. When you met with this employee and checked in on happiness levels, what did you hear or see? If he or she is in a job above his or her skill level, without a working plan, it’s likely that the job happiness is low. In all three scenarios, you are doing the right thing by your team, your business and customers, and the employee, by letting the person go.

Step 5: Listen

When you’ve made a decision to fire, do it as soon as possible. If you’ve had conversations and created plans, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ensure that you have access to any projects worked on, and softwares or platforms he or she has access to. A bad hire doesn’t mean a bad person by any means, however you need to protect your business and your team. I’m not an HR professional and have relied upon HR professionals and blogs to make sure I was doing the right and compliant thing. Here are a couple of resources that have helped me: an extensive checklist on thebalance.com and an article on the 3 stages of off-boarding by Silicon Valley talent veteran, Stephanie Lyman. Plus, a few of my own suggestions.

  • Have a witness present: a co-founder, a director or an advisor if the first options aren’t available. This could help protect you legally and keep the conversation from taking a turn.
  • Make the ‘last day’ as soon as possible: Depending on his or her level of responsibility and tenure within the company, that could be anywhere between two weeks, a week or the same day. My advice is to make it as short as possible for both your team’s sake and the employee’s sake. If you’re uncomfortable with the level of access to company platforms while he or she maintains employment, change the passwords immediately.
  • Schedule an exit interview: The reasons this employee isn’t a good fit will likely have been hashed out by now. Once you’ve let him or her go, schedule an exit interview within the next few days to learn from his or her experience. It’s suggested best practice to have an human resources professional, a manager’s director, or a neutral outside party conduct the exit interview to gather the most truthful feedback. If this is unavailable, alternatives include conducting it yourself or sending a survey. What did her or she enjoy about working for your company? What did he or she not enjoy? Listening to the feedback of all former employees is important to improve how you hire, onboard and manage. You also might learn things candidly that you would never would have expected to. Here is a link to an interesting HBR study on the significance of exit interviews.

At the end of the day, letting go of an employee is never pleasant, but it’ll free you up long term. If you’re firing for the right reasons, you’ll be acting as a real leader and doing the right thing for everyone.

Leslie Wong is the CEO and Co-founder of Burgundy Fox, an e-commerce brand that celebrates and empowers women by curating lingerie for all bodies. Get more content on entrepreneurship, branding, marketing, fundraising and more on their blog BurgundyFox.blog and iTunes podcast, Seamless.