CXO

How to know when to let someone go

Letting a team member go can be a difficult decision. Use the four criteria below to know when it's time to part ways.

One of the hardest tasks leaders and managers must face is dismissing a team member. Most times this is a nuanced decision, and it's easy to let personal considerations or market influences cloud an already-difficult decision. With low unemployment, the prospect of an arduous search for a replacement might further muddy the waters and cause you to keep someone around even longer.

Outside clear cases of legal, ethical, or grossly negligent acts on the part of the employee, these decisions are rarely easy; however, here are a few guidelines to help determine when to dismiss a team member.

SEE: Employee termination policy (Tech Pro Research)

Have you given them a chance?

The first stop for addressing performance problems should always be that person's manager. It's unreasonable to dismiss an employee, outside of an obvious incident, if the expectations and performance standards of their position haven't been well-articulated. A major performance problem could be as simple as that employee not understanding expectations, or focusing on areas that aren't important, as they haven't been given the proper guidance by leadership.

However, there's a limit to the number of interventions that leadership can provide. If the same types of challenges continue to occur, ask yourself whether that individual understands his or her role and the associated performance expectations. This is as simple as asking them to articulate, in their own words, what they're responsible for and explain how they're meeting those objectives. If there's a gap in understanding that can be clarified, and this isn't the sixth time you've addressed similar concerns, clearly state expectations and near and mid-term goals, ensure the employee understands how to meet those goals, and provide another chance. If you've done this multiple times and there's an inability to grasp those expectations, or an inability or unwillingness to perform at the expected level, it's time to move on.

Do they negatively impact the team?

One of the most insidious performance issues is when one member of the team negatively impacts other parts of the organization. An individual who produces perfectly acceptable work can still undermine the broader team and cause significant negative performance impacts that extend well beyond their individual day-to-day responsibilities. If you find that someone is continually impacting the performance of those they work with, it's time to consider another role or team, or dismissing them altogether.

SEE: Hostile workplace prevention policy (Tech Pro Research)

Have you honestly assessed their performance?

It's easy to make allowances for someone that we like as an individual, or with whom we have a long-standing working relationship or outright friendship. This is a normal part of human behavior, but it can cloud your judgment in the long-term. If you've done a good job of laying out goals and objectives as part of regular performance appraisals, and both you and the employee agreed they were reasonable and attainable, an employee who continually fails to meet them needs to be put on a performance improvement plan or guided to another position, whether or not they're a wonderful human being or a friend.

There's no shame in calling on HR or a trusted peer to provide another perspective if you're worried your judgment is clouded. If you find yourself mentally making excuses for poor performance based on personal criteria it is likely time to consider other options. While you may think you're protecting a good man or woman, you're also sending a message to your broader team that being the "buddy of the boss" is more important than performing well, a very dangerous perception that can ultimately undermine the performance of the entire team.

SEE: Severance policy (Tech Pro Research)

Are they in over their head?

Whether through promotions, risky hires, or a number of other factors, you'll occasionally end up with a great performer who's put into a position that's simply outside the realm of their current capabilities. In some cases, this could be by design, putting a high performing individual into a "stretch" role in the hopes of developing their talents quickly, or in other cases it could be the result of taking someone who is a great technical performer, and putting them into a managerial role where they have limited skills.

In this case, it's worth having a realistic discussion with peers, and later the individual, about whether they can ultimately grow into the role. In many cases, the individual will be well-positioned to make that call, and more often than not willing to tell you they're in over their heads. If you've purposely assigned them to a stretch role consider providing additional help and coaching, redesigning the role, or moving them to another role where they can be more successful.

If none of these options are available, avoid months of hoping that this person will rise to the occasion, especially after repeated failures to do so. It's unfair to the employee as well as your team to prolong suffering on all parties in the hopes of a miracle.

It will never get easier to make the call to remove someone from your team or your company. Ensuring that you've provided opportunities for improvement, assessed their impact on the broader team, and avoided letting personal relationships cloud your decision making process will not make the decision any easier, but it can help make these decisions more informed and better for your team as a whole.

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Image: Ivan-balvan, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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