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How long do you wait until you fire someone?

I'm asked this question more times than I care to remember. It usually surfaces when a leader's frustration with an employee's performance and/or behavior has been tolerated far too long. More importantly, the question often means that the leader has been avoiding a fierce conversation or tough decision at the expense of the company and its culture.

The firing of an employee should never be taken lightly. Leaders must accept a high degree of ownership in the failure of an employee to perform up to expectations. When a leader observes sub-par performance and behaviors and avoids engaging in open, honest and direct conversation with the employee, the situation becomes more toxic. And, as stress levels rise, the leader's attention is diverted away from the work that really matters.

I refer to such situations as "intolerable toleration." You don't like what you're seeing and you're not doing anything to fix it. If the question of how long do you wait until you fire someone has been banging around your head, I offer these no-compromise insights:

  • Is it long past career opportunity time? You coached, fired countless warning shots, did both fierce and crucial conversations, threatened demotion or termination - and the problems persist. Yes, it's time to offer this employee a career opportunity to work somewhere else. It is long past time.

  • Are you stuck in the employee's stuff? It is so easy to get sucked into and wrapped up in an employee's personal situations, issues and problems. I am all for helping, encouraging, supporting and showing loyalty to individuals who get derailed by personal stuff. But there is a point when noticeable progress should be seen. That point is when you are fighting harder to protect the employee's paycheck than the employee. Maintain your objectivity or you will get sucked in. You have a company to run and these are tough times. Snap out of it.

  • Are you an "I want to be liked by all" leader? If you are on a quest to be the most successful "good guy" leader of all time, you need a new mantra. Try this one: "I want to be respected by all." Leadership is more about courage, tenacity and integrity than being well-liked. It takes a lot of discipline to move an entire company forward. Some of that discipline involves tough decisions that fall outside your comfort zone, such as firing problem employees. If you do the work of leadership, you will earn respect. You may even be liked by most - but not all.

  • Are you hanging on to the employee for the wrong reason? "But this employee brings in a lot of money." When a leader turns his or her back on a host of unacceptable behaviors just to hang on to that employee's one big attribute, it is a compromise with far-reaching implications. Sure, you can hang on to the sales or whatever this employee excels at, but what does this do to your company culture? How do your other team members see and respond to this? Double standards are toxic and feed the "why should I care" thinking that wrecks cultures. Whatever you think you're benefiting by holding on to such an employee is costing you 10 times that in drama and putting out fires. Yes, it's time to fire your superstar.

Have I answered your question?

Pass this email on to your business colleagues, managers and friends.

Neil Ducoff, Strategies founder & CEO and author of No-Compromise Leadership


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