My first real start-up job, on my first day, my boss called me over, and told me to go fire one of the top executives (yes, you did see this on Cheers as well). It’s possible this is actually the first thing I ever did as a start-up employee.  {It’s at least the first thing I remember doing in that crazy haze that was the Internet of the late ’90s Web 1.0 days, when you could go public on $1m in roundtrip revenue.}

That’s where I started to perfect my study of how to fire the crappy employee.  Please note this has nothing to do with layoffs (a horrible process, which as a CEO/founder, you should strive never, ever, ever to have to do). It also has nothing to do with how to ease a good employee into a different role.  That’s something else.

This is how to fire someone that is a net negative for the company you have worked so hard at and to help build.  And how to fire someone who the moment you get rid of them, life will be better either for you or someone or some people on your team.  Really, how to fire someone that has let you down and not delivered.  Firing this person, is a good thing.  Though shame on you and your team for hiring this person in the first place — it’s all your fault, in fact.  Since it’s your fault, just go fix it.

Just to let you know, I certainly didn’t perfect it my first time at bat.  But then a little later, I had another boss, believe it or not, this boss was VP of HR for a Fortune 500 company in a prior life.  But he had never had to fire someone himself.  And now he did.  First, we did a dress rehearsal, and the VP just fell apart, nervous as could be.  Tense.  Babbling on and on about how it wasn’t about them. it was partly the VP’s fault, blah blah on and on.  He couldn’t handle it.  He asked me to please write a script.

And that’s where I began to perfect it.

Here is the script.  It takes about 90 seconds.  Go to a conference room, out of sight of any other employees.

  • “Pat.”
  • “Today is your last day with the company.”
  • “We’re not going to talk about why, or how come, or anything.  It doesn’t help to discuss it.  It’s done.”
  • “Just go to your desk, and grab any personal effects, and walk yourself out.”
  • “Then email me or call me tomorrow, and we’ll talk about any outstanding items”.
  • Shake Pat’s hand, and stand up.  Walk him/her out of the conference room, and walk back to Pat’s desk with him/her.  Be respectful, but make sure Pat grabs his/her keys, pictures, whatever, and quietly departs.

That’s it.  It takes 90 seconds to deliver, and counting the rest, about 10 minutes to execute.

Disclaimer:  this is not meant to be legal or HR advice.  Consult with them.  Also, of course, Call PayChex or ADP or Trinet, get them their check that day, and whatever exit pack they need.  And you may need someone else in the room.  I.e., talk to HR and legal.  This is really just a proven script for the common scenario of an employee who just isn’t cutting it.  

Firing people is one of the toughest things on managers, but it shouldn’t be.  I will tell you, I’ve had to fire too many people.  In a start-up, every employee lost in the first 12 months from date of hire, for any reason, is a mistake you never should have made.  I blame myself each time for hiring wrong, and strive to have very low involuntary attrition, and zero voluntary attrition.  But, still, sometimes it happens.  And the script above works.  Not a single one shed one tear, or was, as far as I know, embittered by this approach.  People do get embittered by other approaches.  The above is the way to go.  Why?

One, talking about it just makes everyone feel worse.  So don’t.  You are firing the employee.  Talking is only going to make the employee confused.  Am I really fired?   Can I talk my way out of it?  Or angry.  Can my boss really be this dumb?  Confused + angry is bad.  You can’t make it better with prose.  So say the least necessary.

Two, ambiguity is cruel to the employee.  So make sure basically the first thing you say is Today is Your Last Day with the Company.  It will be a shock, but it will be clear.  They’ll get it.  Not being clear on what is happening in the meeting is pure torture to the other side of the table.

Three, we are all human beings.  Shake their hand.  Do not judge.  Even if they did a terrible job here, they may learn from it, and be great at the next one.  I bet you were crappy at one job.  I sure was.  The good ones learn from it.  The words above do not judge.  They simply inform.

Four, remember, no matter what, it is your fault too.  Even if they are the worst employee ever, you hired them.  So it’s on you. You failed in your diligence process.  So the end is not the time to discuss anything at all, and certainly nothing that makes the employee feel bad.

Five, never, ever, let a terminated employee stay even 15 more minutes at the company after the talk.  Sometimes managers want them to stay to finish something.  Worst.  Idea.  Ever.  It’s not just a downer for the rest of the team.  Just as importantly, it’s a downer for the terminated employee, which creates bitterness.  There’s nothing good in an embittered ex-employee.

Bad employees?  Get them out — immediately.  Make the execution merciful, fast and swift.  Treat them the way you’d want to be treated.  And just move on.

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