How NOT to Fire Someone?

managers discussing how not to fire someone
Meeting to decide on firing employee for poor performance.

Firing someone is dreadful. As a manager, it has always been the most difficult task for me. I am certain it is for most. But let’s admit it. It is a job that needs to be done. It needs to be done right. There are several excuses we have to justify firing an employee. However there is one question we must ask ourselves every time –  “Is it absolutely necessary to fire this person?” More often than not, a well thought, evaluated and honest answer is “No”. Let us reason with ourselves how not to fire someone.

Why do we fire an employee?

Poor performance – does not meet targets.

Disciplinary actions – integrity, bad behavior, disobedience, frequent absence from work

Cost cutting – layoffs as business growth or sales forecast are not met

There could be other reasons too. Merger or acquisition could be one. Relocation is another. However the three reasons listed above are the most common. Most studies cite poor performance as the number one reason for terminating employees.

How not to fire an employee for poor performance?

I will narrate a fictional incident. This is a story from the popular legal drama series “Suits”. In the 8th season, Katrina, a senior partner aspirant in the law firm, is tasked with firing the least efficient law associates. Katrina uses an algorithm to rank all associates based on pre-defined efficiency parameters. Brian, one of the favorites of Louis, ends up at the bottom of the list.

As the situation gets complicated, Donna, the law firm COO, helps Katrina look beyond the efficiency results. Turns out, Brian was a great team player. Every other associate who worked closely with Brian ended up at the top of the list.

How does one account for qualitative influences and results? Even if there was a way as there always is, how often do managers account for the intangibles?

Every person in a firm influences more than just KPIs? This could be both positive and negative influence. There are always team players like Brian who make everyone else look good.

Take a pause to think before your decide to fire someone for poor performance
Take a pause to think before your decide to fire someone for poor performance

Ask these questions before you decide to fire someone for poor performance?

1. Is there absolute clarity on how performance was measured?
2. Did we provide adequate, timely help to improve performance?
3. Was the employee aware of the consequences?
4. Is this the role he or she was hired?
5. Can we now help him improve performance?

Is there absolute clarity on how the performance was measured?

This is not always as clear as we may believe. It quite often is a grey territory rather than black or white.

Let’s say you are firing a sales executive for low sales. How do you define low sales? Sales achieved lower than target. Or sales lower than his peers. Or sales lower than last year.

If sales lower than the target is the reason – how were targets set? Were there any external factors beyond his influence that may have resulted in low sales?

If his sales is lower than his peers – was there an equal opportunity for every sales executive?

Did we provide adequate help to improve performance?

Were their regular performance reviews and feedback? Did we help the employee identify opportunities and challenges?

If weaknesses were identified, what did we do? Training? Coaching? Additional resources?

Was the employee made aware of the consequences?

Was he explicitly informed that continued poor performance will lead to termination?

Did we give enough opportunity and chances? Quite often, the fear of losing the job pushes people to work harder. This could help avoid complacency.

Is this the role he was hired for?

This is a very relevant question. Roles and responsibilities change with time.

An excellent sales executive may be promoted to start managing a team of sales executives. It is one thing to be a great salesperson. It is quite another managing other sales people. The person was hired as he had the skills to sell. Did we train the person to be good at managing others?

Can we help him improve performance?

The answer to this has to be a definite NO. Can some training or coaching help him improve performance? Can there be a change in his role in the firm? The employee may be a great fit in some other department or position. Have we considered all options? Do we have a mechanism to test employee skills for other departments or roles within the firm?

As we debate how not to fire, the questions above will help us answer two very important questions?

  1. Is he or she indeed a poor performer?
  2. Are we somewhat accountable for the poor performance?

We should consider firing the employee only if the answer to the first question is a definite YES and the answer to the second is a definite NO.

Try following this flowchart to avoid unnecessary termination of employees who deserve a second chance.

Flowchart: How not to fire someone?

Click to Download the flowchart.

How not to fire someone for poor performance
Flowchart: How Not to Fire Someone for Poor Performance

I am sure you would agree that we need to be more grateful, considerate and empathetic to our people. As managers, let us start creating a winning culture.

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By Nitesh Verma

Founder - Business Management Blog. I am an independent business strategy consultant, helping companies take data driven business decisions. My mission is to find and implement simple solutions for complex business problems.


  1. very helpful!! Provides a great structure and list of reasons to make sure that firing someone is the correct choice.

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