Firing should not come as a surprise!



I recently had a mentee company that had to fire a member of the tech staff whom they had just recently hired, as the person just wasn’t doing the job. It was a traumatic process for the founders, as they had never had to fire anyone before. That lead to this post on a few tips on firing, based on having had to fire numerous employees at different companies over the years.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an employment attorney, I’ve never even played one on TV. So when choosing a law firm to represent your company make sure they have specialists in employment law who can help you prevent legal action if possible, and if not, represent you effectively.


The first rule of firing is it should not come as a surprise to the employee. (The only reason it should is if they are fired for cause – doing something illegal, immoral or otherwise well outside the bounds of proper conduct – in which case they need to be fired immediately and escorted from the office). But otherwise, the employee who is not working out, for whatever reason – and many times it’s a question of fit with the company or fit with the position, or both – you need to put the staffer on notice.


Flag issues early and document them in writing, to the employee and to the personnel file. In today’s litigious environment you never know when or if you are going to get sued, so make sure you keep a detailed, dated, and accurate record of issues with the problem staffer. If issues can be resolved, great. But if not, you may need to rely on these notes later if termination is in order.


Sit down with the employee. Face-to-face meetings to discuss problematic issues are absolutely necessary – do not use email, text, Slack or any other electronic means. What I find is the best way to start the discussion is to ask the employee “How are things going?


Oftentimes employees will know they aren’t performing up to snuff, and sometimes they might even have a good reason, such as issues with their manager or serious problems at home. It’s your job as manager to find out – don’t make assumptions. Ask questions, don’t make bald statements. (“What caused you to miss the deadline for the alpha product release?” )


Create an improvement plan. Regardless of whether the staffer is aware of the issue, such as continually failing to meet deadlines, or not, you need to give them the opportunity to correct the problem. Like all goal setting, it’s important that you don’t do this in a top down autocratic way, but rather make sure you get staffer buy-in to the plan. The plan needs concrete, operational – that is measurable – steps over time. Typically 90  days is the maximum time one allots, but shorter periods may well be in order if the problem is having a serious impact on the company’s performance or morale. Keep in mind, other staff may well be watching you – as a manager in the company – to see how you handle someone they know is not performing up to snuff.


Terminate if plan not met. The employee needs to understand that they will be terminated if they can’t meet the improvement plan on schedule. You need to check in with them weekly if not more frequently to monitor progress with them. I’ve often seen employees realize during this period it’s in their best interest to resign rather than being fired, and it’s actually a relief to them to get out of an uncomfortable position and be able to move on.


Make sure you have a clear termination policy and severance plan. Consult with your firm’s legal counsel to set this up in advance and have it in writing. People need to know they are being treated fairly, ethically, and equally.


Finally, in all my startups, which were mostly in the last century, we made it clear to new hires that they were employees at will and that everyone could be let go if they didn’t meet expectations. I never hired anyone who had a problem with this policy and it helped reinforce point one: firing should not come as a surprise to the employee and most likely not to those who work with them either.


(Some senior execs may ask for or even demand an employment contract. In my day, my VCs were adamantly against employment contracts and in four VC-backed companies and one angel-backed company no one had an employment contract – not even the founders.)


If you haven’t read it yet, please read my previous post Hire slowly, fire quickly.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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