“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” ~Unknown
"One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested." ~E. M. Forster
Letting someone go is one of the worst things any leader faces. As leaders you are supposed to develop the people in your charge, and if necessary mold positions to suit strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, firing an employee is not only uncomfortable and results in the need to go through the effort, time and expense of hiring and training a new person, it is also an indictment on your own leadership capabilities.
That all being said, as a leader you live in a reality where your best efforts will not necessarily end in the results you desire for any number of reasons. When that happens, when you’ve expended the energy to improve the employee’s performance, when you’ve given the re-training, when you’ve had the one-on-ones and when you’ve given the warnings, the best thing you can do for the good of the organization is to let that person go.
Nowhere is this more important than with an employee whose behavior and performance is toxic to those coworkers around them. This added degree of negativity is something that all leaders face at one time or another and how they deal with it can define how their team views their leadership and overall performance. A recent Harvard Business School study titled Toxic Workers and authored by Dr. Dylan Minor and Dr. Michael Housman found that it is actually more beneficial to eliminate toxic employees from your team than it is to hire in superstars.
It is a very common weakness among leaders to despise letting employees go so much that they don’t, even when it is in the best interest of everyone involved. But while firing an employee, even a toxic one, is something that a leader looks to prevent, it can yield some very positive results:
Sets the right example for others – Poor performance should never be allowed to become the status quo either within the whole department or at the individual level. Your high performers are watching those around them and if they see others performing poorly on a consistent basis, and see that behavior being tolerated, they may adjust what they view as the expectations they should be held to. Where toxic and poor performing individuals have the worst impact on an operation is with newly hired employees. In these cases, their example immediately lowers the bar for performance expectations and impedes the performance of the new hire.
Improves motivation – Toxic employees are almost always “glass half empty” individuals who will find fault in even the best successes of an organization. One of the biggest benefits of eliminating these people from your workforce is in the area of overall motivation and morale. What’s more, when other employees see an individual performing poorly yet in many cases being paid the same, they may rightfully ask why they are working so hard and are so concerned about performance. It’s this area where a poor performer can start derailing the performance of an entire organization.
Replacements boost results – While just eliminating the poorly performing and toxic employee from your operation likely will yield an improvement, as noted in the Harvard study above, it doesn’t mean you can’t replace the individual. If you have learned from the hiring mistakes of the past there is an enormous opportunity to take what was a detriment to performance and replace it with something that accelerates performance yielding twice the benefit.
Performance often worsens – You often get more of what you tolerate. Once the employee knows that they can get away with giving less and disrupting operations, they are likely to continue getting worse. It isn’t just how bad they are, it’s how bad they can become that should encourage action on your part.
Establishes trust – When expectations are clear, when you make the difficult decisions, and when you take actions that support the overall goals of the organization it builds trust between you and your team. They know that you mean what you say and that you will back it up, they know you will be fair in your assessments and you know you are working to provide an environment where they can excel. This trust speeds decision making, buy-in and overall process flow.
Let’s you use time more productively – Your time as a leader is valuable and you need to be spending it constructively working with each member of your team (high-performers as well as low-performers). While you have a duty to spend extra time when needed with an individual, you need to see results. Assuming that you have been spending more time with the toxic or poorly performing employee, by letting them go you are able to rebalance that time allotment between employees.
Opportunities for empowerment – Those duties once done by a poorly performing or toxic employee need to be done by someone. In many cases this is an opportunity to give another team member some new experience. At a bare minimum it is an opportunity for a trainer or mentor to exercise these essential skills.
Now it should go without saying that you need to follow the correct procedures, documentation and discipline before firing any employee, and this takes time. Time you can use to correct the issues with the employee so that it doesn’t come to a firing. What this list is meant to do is to encourage you to do the right thing when it comes time to.
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