Hiring is hard, but firing can be even harder. There are situations when it’s obvious that someone needs go – harassment, abuse, illegal activity, etc. Those are HR nightmares and clearly fireable offenses. I want to discuss times when employees only partially fit your culture, have just-good-enough competency, and don’t clearly violate HR policies. Firing these kinds of employees is often a gut-wrenching experience.

So, how do you know when it’s time to call it quits? When should you cut ties with an employee who doesn’t quite meet performance or behavior expectations? How do you navigate that gut feeling you get when someone doesn’t seem to be the right fit?

The four steps below will help you put a process around these ambiguous situations.

Step 1: Define the issue

When someone on the team doesn’t fit, it’s easy for employers to slap the “square peg in a round hole” label on the employee. It’s easier to shuffle the employee to the side and move on. In cases like this, the employee gets isolated and the employer usually waits for the employee to self-select out. This doesn’t solve the problem, and worse, it doesn’t define the issue with the employee. This hurts both the organization and the employee in the long run as neither party learns anything from the experience.

In cases like these, it is critical to define the issue. Saying someone is not a fit isn’t good enough. Why doesn’t the employee fit? Is it an attitude issue? Are there values-alignment problems? Does the employee lack empathy? Does he or she have an abrasive communication style? The issue needs to be clearly defined first so you can have clarity around the tension between the employee and the team. It also gives you an opportunity to discuss a specific concern with the employee. If you don’t define the issue first, you can’t determine whether or not the employee’s “fit” can be molded.

Step 2: Discuss the issue

With the specific issue clearly identified, it’s time to discuss it with the employee and have a crucial confrontation. If the term ‘crucial confrontation’ sounds ominous, read Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. You’ll realize that it’s not as scary as it sounds. In fact, a crucial confrontation is a productive, safe, and clear way to discuss situations where employees don’t live up to expectations. In short, the process of discussing concerns with the employee looks like this:

  • Create a safe environment – Be respectful with the employee and explain the mutually-beneficial purpose of talking with them so they don’t feel attacked.
  • Explain the “gap” – Clearly describe the performance or behavior gap by telling a story about a factual situation that happened. Describe the factual consequences and avoid inserting your feelings about the situation until you’ve established the facts.
  • Make a plan – Brainstorm ways that you and the employee can work together to avoid the natural consequences of the issue at-hand. You should create a plan to follow so the employee has a clear path forward and you have something to reference when you follow-up.

Step 3: Regularly check in

If you followed steps 1 and 2, you have:

  • Clarity around the actual issue that’s creating tension between the employee and the team.
  • Mutual agreement between you and the employee about the natural consequences of the issue.
  • A plan to move forward together to correct the issue.

Now it’s time to take action on everything you learned and the plan you created. If you don’t do this, the employee will feel abandoned and betrayed – like you were willing to discuss the issue and work with them on a plan, but unwilling to invest in the employee beyond that.

Setting up weekly one-on-one meetings is a great way to sustain the momentum created from the first two steps. In those meetings, let the employee be the first to reflect on their experiences and perceptions about the issue during the prior week. As the employee speaks, make notes about perspectives that you may not share so you can discuss them later. When it’s your turn to speak, note common perceptions you and the employee share and then address any disconnects you’ve observed. When you leave the meeting, make sure there’s re-commitment to the plan you made. This helps the employee feel like the plan isn’t a constantly moving target.

Step 4: Survey the team

Your one-on-one engagements with the employee are great, and hopefully they result in really  visible improvements. However, some behavioral or performance changes can be so subtle that you don’t easily see them in the day-to-day. Engage your peers to find out if they noticed improvements in the employees’ performance or behavior as you navigate through each of the steps. You may simply be too close to the situation to remain objective. Your team should be able to give you a fair assessment of what they’ve experienced since you first defined and discussed the issue with the employee.

When you follow this process consistently over time, you and the employee should have a pretty clear understanding about whether or not things have improved within a month or two of your first conversation. If things have not improved, termination should not come as a surprise to the employee. In the process of clearly defining and discussing the issue (and the natural consequences of it) with the employee, you’ve given the employee every effort to own his or her own success or failure. Termination becomes a natural consequence of the employee’s deferred ownership of the issue.

Put some human in it

It sounds cold in writing, but in practice this process removes some of the sting from the termination conversation. Too often, terminations blindside employees or are shrouded with ambiguous rationale that makes no sense to the person receiving their walking papers. It’s unfair to the employee and it shows poor leadership on your part. As an employer, you have a duty to serve your employees as much as they have a responsibility to serve you. The days of lording over your employees are coming to and end, and now it’s time to see them and treat them like the people that they are. Put some human in it! Your employees deserve it.

*A resource for help

We have a free high performance teamwork assessment on our site that you can download and use to identify areas of dysfunction in your organization. Give it to your team. The results might give you clarity about why your team doesn’t feel as cohesive as it could be. You can use the results from this assessment as a starting point for defining the issues that exists with certain employees. And if you need more help than a free tool, we have programs designed to meet you where you are and we’re always available to chat if you need us.