Tear of the bandage and fire that problem employee

By Michelle van Schouwen

It has taken me decades to learn this lesson: Some employees cannot, or should not, be trained, “fixed” or tolerated. They should be fired.

If your first response upon reading that is to shudder or shake your head, or to assume that I must be a poor manager, please read on.

As a business owner and as a manager, I often gave poor performers (even sociopaths!) chance after chance to improve, and when I finally terminated their employment, was amazed by the positive changes all around me – from office morale to profitability and beyond, including my own well-being.

The first time I fired anyone: In my very first management job, prior to owning a company, I was authorized to fire a staff member who had been stealing electronic equipment from the company. The human resources director gave me advice I’ve never forgotten. “By the time you’re firing a person for cause, you don’t need to have a big discussion. IT’S OVER. Say you’re making a change, or moving in a different direction, or simply that the person’s services are no longer required.” Despite this coaching and my best effort, the fired employee responded by warning me, “I’m going to come to your house and burn it down.” Apparently, she was not only a thief but aspired to be an arsonist. Nonetheless, after a few sleepless nights, I was glad she was gone.

Fast forward to owning a business: Over the years, my own company had a few memorably bad employees, including:

-The show-up-at-work-drunk-and-threaten-to-sue-us slacker (he demanded but did not receive $10,000 compensation upon being fired following his inauspicious and very brief employment)

-The sociopath who (emotionally and motivationally) poisoned office morale and client relationships

-The self-pitying person who “just couldn’t do the job” and through endless coaching and even modification of responsibilities, increasingly refused to try

-Several more, including one who faked lung cancer to take a few days off (when he returned, he declared himself cured)

My most serious mistake was to believe that I could change what turned out to be an employee’s character via coaching, training, patience, encouragement, or other tactics. Typically, that doesn’t work. Even if you could make it happen through your heroic efforts, should you? In many cases, the answer is no. An employer must consider the costs, not only opportunity costs of doing that work versus putting your energy elsewhere, but also the impacts on other employees, customers and clients, and in some cases, your company’s reputation.

The excellent business guide Traction suggests evaluating first whether the employment position (“chair”) is appropriate for your company, and then whether you have the right person in that “chair.” If you are spending an inordinate amount of time getting an employee to exhibit appropriate office behavior or good character, to be productive or to provide better quality work, you probably have the wrong person in that chair.

[amazon_link asins=’0814433022′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’succeedingin-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’5e05df69-4ecf-11e8-ae31-339d1edff1ac’]Before you fire: As a caution, make sure you have a process for firing and that you follow that process. Make sure your employees know your procedures and policies (see my blog post on that topic). Assure that you understand the employment laws in your state. At my previously owned company, van Schouwen Associates, our employee handbook started with a description of the company’s right to end anyone’s employment in our at-will employment state “for any reason or for no reason at all.”

We also had a typical process involving successive warnings, but cautioned employees in the handbook that they could be dismissed without any warnings, at our sole discretion. (As a fellow employer pointed out to me, “Your handbook shouldn’t attempt or claim to list all fireable offenses, because you WILL miss something. You might not mention that an employee who attempts to stab another employee will be fired without notice, for example, because you never thought it would happen.”)

Concerned about impacts on your staff? Most likely, the rest of the staff will be grateful when you “finally” dismiss the pain-in-the-neck in their midst. (Some experts assure you that, when you fire someone, you are freeing them up for a more appropriate opportunity. Well, maybe. If that thought makes you feel better, fine.) But most important, you are freeing yourself and your company to do your best work and build the success you want.

In the end, employment is a deal. You get services, honestly and well rendered, in exchange for providing a job and compensation. As an employer, you have a right to expect reasonable courtesy, integrity, and a sincere effort to show up and do the work. You do not have to put up with lying, stealing, rudeness or extreme outbursts of anger, with undermining of your efforts or authority within the company, with lack of effort or incompetence, with unexplained or unjustified absences, or with other behaviors or traits that don’t help you in getting the job done.

[amazon_link asins=’0992340268′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’succeedingin-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’69067db9-4ecf-11e8-803f-f12abed5a5dc’]A few words on the actual firing:

-Have a packet ready, with unemployment, COBRA and any other required information. If you are providing severance, include information or the check in the packet. You may want to check with an attorney for requirements in your state.

-Keep your messaging simple (“We’ve decided to go in a different direction. We thank you for your services and will provide you with XX severance…” (or no severance if warranted) will do it.)

-If you can provide a useful reference, say so. If not, don’t mention it.

-Don’t have the employee continue working after the dismissal. Especially don’t have the employee back on his or her computer. If something needs doing, you or someone else will take care of it.

-Provide a box for personal belongings, or offer to ship them.

-Walk the employee out of the building if needed. It’s best that the employee leave very soon after dismissal – immediately if he or she is being fired for bad behavior on the job. In most cases, having a dismissed employee saying long goodbyes doesn’t do anybody any good.

-We’ve had security or a police officer present at and following some dismissals. Better safe than sorry, if you believe an employee might cause trouble or return to the office.

-In many cases, you should have the office locks changed the same day, and change any passwords that an employee might use to cause trouble.

Afterwards, take a deep breath. Believe it or not, you WILL feel better, often startlingly so.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5analytics.org. For the past 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle supports the Six-Point team in an advisory capacity.

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