Imagine for a moment you’ve recently hired someone. Another engineer to help out the development team, your first account representative, or even a new exec to head up a newly created department. There’s probably a lot that you like about them — you did after all, hire them. They hustle, they have the experience you were looking for, they do their job well. But there’s also some early indicators that something is just… off. They’re causing conflict with other team members. They aren’t quite as experienced as their resume implied. And, damn, why the hell can’t they get along with the rest of the team?!?
But because you like them and they just started the job, you’re going to let it go for now, do what you can to help them succeed, and you’re pretty sure in a few months they’ll be fully aligned where they need to be. You’re a good manager, so you have a conversation with them and hope for the best.
Now let’s imagine a few months have gone by. You’re talking with your startup coach, describing your love/hate relationship with this employee. The reasons you hired them still apply, but those early warning signs haven’t gotten any better, and in fact have gotten worse. What initially was just annoying is now causing real problems, taking time and effort away from your work. But they’re still good at the things they were always good at, and so you tell your coach you’re going to keep trying and give it a few more months.
I don’t have to imagine what will happen next. A few more months will go by and you’ll call up your coach one day to tell them you couldn’t take it anymore, you just fired them. And if your coach is me, I’ll ask you if you could go back, would you have fired them sooner? And you’ll probably tell me to fuck off.
The reason I don’t have to imagine it is because I’ve seen several clients go through this, with the same ending, in just the last few weeks.
One company contracted a young kid that performed well at what he was brought on to do, but kept pissing off his coworkers and even the CEO with his entitled attitude and unwillingness to be a team player. He got plenty of chances to change, until the CEO couldn’t take it anymore and rescinded a generous full-time offer. And, the kicker? Now the company is in a legal mess because the kid didn’t like wholly unrequired severance offer. I mean, really, who does that shit?!?
Another company brought on what they thought was a dream hire. This guy had a pedigree like you wouldn’t believe, with the perfect experience the founder was looking for. Immediately after the hire, the CEO started gettingcomplaint emails from employees. The new hire was telling everyone they had no clue, they had built a crappy product and only he could set the organization straight. But the guy was a lynchpin, so the CEO did all he could to keep him around, eventually acquiescing qand making him the de facto COO of the company. As a result, the VP of Engineering, the VP of Product, several engineers and the Head of Integration all quit. The kicker? After everyone quit, the guy walked into the CEO’s office and quit himself, saying that he and the CEO never saw eye to eye. Not only did they lose their “dream hire,” they also lost their integration, engineering and product teams. Without a doubt, my client wishes he could go back and fire him sooner.
But more than just “fire people sooner,” there is a larger lesson you can take away from these examples. I got it from Gino Wickman’s book Traction, and it’s a two-step process for evaluating if a problem employee should stay.
The first step is to take a look at your corporate values, and determine if the employee shares them. This assumes of course, that you have corporate values. And honor them. Companies have values in order to give employees a north star when faced with complex decisions. If an employee doesn’t align with those values, it doesn’t make them a bad person, it just means they probably won’t succeed at your company. So, if you haven’t already, figure out your company’s three-to-seven fundamental values, and then determine if your employee shares them. If not, time to let him go. Even if they’ve only been at the company for a few weeks. Give them a decent severance package, send them on their way, and make sure you consider those values when hiring their replacement.
Gino calls step two GWC — get it, want it, capacity to do it. If this employee aligns with your values, you should ask these questions:
- Do they understand (get) their job? If not, that’s your fault, and it’s usually pretty easy to resolve. Have a chat and make sure you’re both on the same page.
- If they get their job, do they want to do their job? You see this a lot with salespeople. They told you they were fine making cold calls in the interview, but it turns out, they just don’t want to. No amount of explaining or training is going to want to make them do that work. If you’re at a large company, find them another role. If you’re at a startup, get rid of them.
- Finally, if they get their job, and want to do their job, do they have the capacity to do their job? Maybe yes, with some training. This is a situation where you might offer them some classes or spend a month leveling them up. But you have to close the delta here, or cut them loose.
What I love most about GWC is that so often, when founders feel something is wrong with an employee, that’s all they know. It’s a gut feeling, but they have no idea how to evaluate it or what to do next. GWC offers that framework.
It also offers a way of thinking about firing an employee where, at the end of the day, it’s often no one’s fault. Sometimes, it’s just not going to work. And the quicker you figure it out and fix it, the better for your startup.
— Eric Marcoullier
Determining whether to fire an employee is one of those things that often benefits from an objective third party. That can be a friend, a fellow CEO/founder or a coach. If you’re struggling with whether to let an employee go or give them another opportunity to improve, give me a shout at email@example.com or visit my startup coaching website.