Chapter 8 – Fire Better

Just like learning how to hire is a skill so is learning how to fire.  Of course this is a skill none of us really wants to learn, but firing is a simple reality of having employees.  If you are going to have people work for you, not matter how hard you try to never let a bad apple get through your process, you are going to have to show someone the door eventually.

Looking at my first business in the first couple of years, you would think that I was aces at firing people.  That is, I fired the first five employees I ever hired.  And, even though I (clearly) sucked at hiring in those days, I was also terrible at firing.  I just got plenty of practice being bad at it.

Now, by being bad at firing I don’t mean that I was unable to make people stop showing up for work anymore.  No, I was bad at firing because I always waited way, way longer than I should have.  I knew that I had to get rid of someone but I would let the situation fester and rot, sometimes for months on end.  I would let a bad situation get so intolerably horrible that I would snap.  And, by the time I finally got rid of them I always wondered why I had not let them go much, much sooner.

It is human nature to not want to hurt someone else, even sometimes when they are hurting you.  You want to hope that things will get better, that they are just going through a rough patch that they will recover from.  Alas, this rarely happens.  In fact, usually by the time you think someone has to go their fate is already sealed.  Especially if you suspect something untoward is going on, most of the time when you finally go to investigate, things are much worse that you thought.

I do not know anyone who enjoys firing people.  It is a terrible experience for everyone involved.  However, it can be an incredibly freeing thing too.  That is, if you are anything like me, when you have to fire someone, especially someone that has been there for a while, the actual firing event is precipitated by several anxious, sleepless nights; hours of internal debate; hours of talking the situation over with your spouse; and several elaborate plans for how to actually do it.  We agonize over this situation, a situation which is rarely even close to as bad as we think it will be.  Sure, we imagine all sorts of drama, from a particularly tense screaming match to the person waiting for us in the parking lot when we leave.  In reality, though, the situation is usually a fairly calm one.  Personally, I have never had anyone even raise their voice at me when I fired them.  Usually, they just sit there quietly, typically with their head down.  They might ask a few questions, but after I am done they usually quietly gather their things and take the walk of shame out to their car.

In hindsight, it is funny to me that I worried so much about firing people.  I have been fired from a couple of jobs (like most entrepreneurs I can be a bit of a handful as an employee), and when the “big day” finally came, it was not only expected, but it was usually a relief.  That is, when I was underperforming in a job, it was because I hated it.  And, even though losing a job suddenly is traumatic, there was at least a little part of me that was just glad I didn’t have to go there and pretend anymore.

And judging from the firing experiences I have had with my employees, I usually pick up a similar story from them.   That is, most employees that get fired usually don’t debate you much because they know the truth.  Most employees are not delusional, and they know they have been doing crap work.  Most employees are just embarrassed that they were not hiding their behavior better and that they got called on it.

However, when I say most employees, I know that this does not apply to everyone.  In fact, I had a salesman debate me once.  He felt he had not done anything wrong and I was making a huge mistake.  His incredulity makes for a pretty funny story, though, which goes like this:

Steve had been a great salesman once.  He was extremely friendly, personable, and really, really good at what he did.  He was one of the top performers month after month.  He had a legion of fans with our customers and he was a dream as an employee.  He was consistently at work early and consistently stayed late.  He would do anything to make sure a sale went through perfectly for the customer.  Whether this meant going back to the warehouse and packing an order himself, or if it meant spending several hours on the phone with FedEx to track a package down, there was nothing Steve wouldn’t do to make sure the customer got exactly what they wanted.

So, after Steve had been with the company for a while, and his numbers started to dip, I started to get concerned.  Something had changed with Steve, but after many attempts to talk with him about it, I was assured over and over that things were fine.  This went on for months and months.

One day Steve came in happier than I had seen him in a while.  Everyone around him noticed it, and we were all happy that the old Steve seemed to be back.  That day, Steve asked for a private meeting with me to pitch a “really big idea”.  I gladly agreed, and when the time for our meeting came, I spent about 30 minutes listening to his presentation.  He was clearly excited about his “big idea”.  Unfortunately, I did not share his enthusiasm.

He pitched the idea of going after a whole new market of customers.  He offered to take the lead in this arena, and he told me that going after this market would require him to work from home about 50% of the time.

I heard him out, and when he finished I started to raise my objections.  First, I did not see as big of market opportunity as he did (I did not think we were poised to offer what this new market would want).  I knew this new market was already pretty crowded and breaking in would be hard, and I did not see any advantage to him working from home.  As it was, the salesman took turns on the incoming calls, and I did not want to cut him out of that loop.  Plus, I just could not find any compelling reason why he could not work in the office.

After our meeting, Steve walked out of my office like I had just told him I ran over his cat.  I told him I appreciated his enthusiasm and I offered to work with him to find another avenue for his new-found sales-verve.  He politely declined and said that he would just go back to his desk.

In the weeks that followed, Steve’s performance went from bad to worse.  He started showing up late, he started to leave early, and his sales numbers were terrible.  I was getting complaints from the other sales staff that Steve was shirking his duties taking incoming calls, he did not seem to be making hardly any outgoing calls, and he was incessantly typing away on his keyboard all day.  I, again, pulled Steve aside and asked what was going on.  He assured me that everything was fine and there was no problem.  I was soon to find out, though, there was a big problem.

The constant typing was concerning me too.  So, I started to take a look at what he was doing.  Every employee I hire signs a “no expectation of privacy” document for their phone and computer use on their first day.  This document has saved my bacon on several occasions (I once had an employee who averaged 7 ½ hours of DVD Player software time on every day I was out of the office), and it would save me here too.  I started to monitor what Steve was doing all day, and I found he was spending an incredible amount of time doing Instant Messaging, over five hours a day on average.

I started to read through some of these chat logs and I was horrified.  Here was friendly-old-Steve chatting away, with someone he ostensibly met on the Internet, in some of the most lewd, graphic terms I had ever read.  Now, I happened to know that Steve was married with two small kids at home.  I guess that didn’t really factor in for him, since in the most recent log I found out that this person was not only, in fact, local, but they had met because this mystery lady and her husband wanted to setup a three-way.

My stomach turned when I read this part.  And the funny thing is, I had already mentally prepared myself for this.  That is, it has been my experience that when you have someone screwing around on the Internet all day, and you read what they have been up to, you get a far more personal look into their life than you would ever, ever want.  With this new bombshell, though, things had gone to a whole other level.

That night I agonized over what to do.  Steve had a solid history, but I just did not see him coming back from this.  It was clear that Old-Steve was gone, and the simple fact was that there was no way I could abide with New-Steve.    So, I decided to fire him the next day, the same day that I unfortunately knew this three-person tryst was to go down.

So, the next afternoon I called Steve into my office.  I had about a two-inch-high stack of Internet usage logs in front of me, and I dove in to my firing speech.  I gave him all of the reasons why this was completely unacceptable and how he simply had no place here anymore.

Steve was quiet for a second, and then he started to debate me.  All at once all of his slumbering sales-skill came back online, and he proceeded to try and dissuade me of this course of action.  He tried to blame everything from his situation at home, to the fact that he had a strong history, to the fact that I was some puritanical nut-job and this sort of thing was totally normal.  He tried every single pressure point he could to get me to change my mind, but my mind had already been made up.

I calmly explained to him that this was not a moral call, this was a performance one.  I explained that spending five hours a day doing anything online would not have been acceptable, and that deep down he knew that.

Of course he vehemently disagreed with me, and told me he thought I was nuts to let him go.  Be that as it may, I told him, the decision had been made and he needed to clean out his desk and leave the building.

Now, since I was the boss, it was my job to supervise him cleaning out his desk.  I learned this is a crucial part of the firing process from a prior fired employee who cleaned out not only their desk, but also all of our customer files and contracts when they left.  So, knowing better now, I watched Steve clean everything out of his desk and I escorted him out the door.  The whole time, though, he continued his hard-sell of why this was crazy and he had done nothing wrong.  In the end, we agreed to disagree and I watched him drive away.

The point of this story is to encourage you to follow your gut instinct.  I knew something was wrong, pretty early on, but it was only after several people came up to me that I did anything about it.

Now, I do not think this situation could have been saved.  I think Steve had mentally checked-out a long time prior and having his big idea shot down was just the last straw.  In fact, to this day I believe that Steve, deep down, really didn’t like his job.  I think the overly-friendly and caring personality was just a veneer we were treated to every day.  And, like with all false personalities, one can only keep them up for so long.  Eventually, willpower will fade and when people stop caring, bad things start to happen.

I think in Steve’s mind he thought he was fully justified in what he was doing.  I am guessing that he felt undervalued in both his home and work situations, so he was just trying to balance the scale.  After all, I had rejected his big idea so I deserved to be punished.  Of course, that is not even close to rational, but when people feel bad they will do all sorts of extreme things to make themselves feel better.

A bad employee is like a malignant growth in your business, and you owe it to your business (not to mention your other employees and your own sanity) to get them out of there as fast as possible.  If, deep down, you know you need to get rid of someone, delaying only makes it worse.  By letting a bad situation just linger on, you are not only prolonging the negative effect this person has on everything around them, you are prolonging the delay in being able to get someone good in that same role.

If you are putting off this sort of decision, know you are not doing anyone any favors by waiting.  You are making a bad situation worse, and you are keeping your company from being able to have the kind of person who would thrive in this sort of role.  Not only that, you are keeping the employee from being able to go find something that is a better fit for them.

So, if you do need to fire someone, just do it.  Know it is never as bad as you think it will be, and in the long run, everyone will be much better off for doing it now.