How to fire someone badly

File photo of Republican presidential candidate Drumpf gesturing and declaring "You're fired!" at a rally in Manchester

A few weeks ago, I posted about getting fired and why I deserved it. (I followed that up with a post about the need to complain at work, and how it can go sour.) In this post, a couple of smart friends share their experiences related to letting people go – and how it can go horribly wrong.

Laura Zabel, Executive Director at Springboard for the Arts, recounts a particularly challenging experience – her first firing:

It was a disaster. I let the person stay way too long and even convinced them to stay when they wanted to leave because they had been a great, engaged, high capacity staff person and I was certain they could get back to that place. I learned that just because a person was great at their job once doesn’t mean they are great at their job now, especially when it’s affecting other staff.

I ended up having to fire this person in the moment – I realized that they had been interfering with other people’s work, unloading a lot of unhealthy emotional weight on other staff members and disrupting partnerships and meetings with emotional outbursts. I had absolutely let things get out of control and the rest of the staff was suffering for it. So I had to ask the person to leave in the middle of our conversation. It was really hard, but I honestly felt in the moment like I didn’t have any other choice.

As I read Laura’s comments, I’m struck by her explanation of the “disaster” and why she chose to classify it that way. “I let the person stay too long.” “The rest of the staff was suffering.” “I didn’t have any other choice.” The disaster, as it turns out, was waiting too long, letting things get out of hand, and firing someone “in the moment.” The firing itself? Not a disaster at all. It was absolutely necessary. In fact, Laura continues:

What finally pushed me to realize I needed to fire someone was seeing clearly how detrimental the person was to the health, satisfaction, and engagement of the rest of the staff. I was really worried other staff wouldn’t understand or would think I hadn’t tried hard enough to find a workable situation, but the staff was relieved in a way that made me feel like I should have taken care of the problem sooner.

Anna Peterson, Director of the STEP-UP Youth Employment Program in Minneapolis, had very different experience, also bad:

The employee had made some really egregious errors over a few months that could no longer be coached through or ignored. I remember coming into the organization as a new managing director. They waited until I arrived and then asked me to fire her. That was wrong and lame. 

had a similar experience several years ago, inheriting a problem that had existed for ages and was ignored. As in Laura’s example, the most difficult thing about the situation was that it had gone on for so long.

Letting these things linger can cause several problems. When behavior issues aren’t addressed, teams suffer in a variety of ways – productivity slows, frustration mounts, and a sense of hopelessness creeps in. And for the person being fired, the experience can be genuinely baffling, because the very same behaviors that were tolerated in the past are suddenly unacceptable.


It’s hard to let an employee go. Even the worst leaders know it’s a big deal, not to be taken lightly. But nobody ever says they wished they waited longer to do it.

The first time I let someone go, I was a mess. After I’d made the decision, I revisited it frequently, wondering if I could somehow make things work. But I had no choice – my employee was having a negative impact on the team and the company, and the current situation couldn’t continue.

When I finally let the employee go, my team’s attitude and performance improved immediately (I felt much better too). Eventually, even the employee in question acknowledged that he needed a change, and that I’d made the right call. Turns out that what seemed like a terrible situation turned out to be a great opportunity for all involved.

Better late than never.

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