Having to fire an employee as a founder is one of the most dreadful experiences you can go through. I went through it a couple of times now and though it does get easier with time, it still is something that leaves me with a sense of guilt.
The first handful of employees you get on board of your company show a lot of trust in you and your startup. You feel thankful for that level of trust. You are highly appreciative for the fact that they decided to work with you. And you feel responsible for them.
Nevertheless it is sometimes necessary to part ways with an employee – no matter how well you may like him or her. If you stick with badly performing people for too long it will cost you money and you will risk a bad influence they may have on the rest of the team.
Here are a couple of thoughts on how to handle the situation.
- When it is time to deliver the bad news to your employee be straight and to the point. There is no point in doing silly chit-chat leading up to the bad news. I start of these conversations by saying “I am afraid I will have unpleasant news for you today” or something like that. Then I say what needs to be said straight away.
- Make clear that you do not make this decision light-hearted and purely based on questions of job performance. Argue with numbers or objective results and not with personal shortcomings that may have led to those numbers and results. This is not the time and place to criticize the person. Focusing on results will allow the employee to save face.
- Keep the conversation short and crisp. Many people will start to argue and defend themselves, which is more than understandable. Too easily the conversation moves towards a situation where the employee feels that he can convince you. And this is where it may get messy. You must make it crystal clear that the decision is unchangeably made. You should only be having this conversation in first place, when you are sure to be doing the right thing.
- End the conversation by summing up the following, clearly structured steps for off-boarding. This is something that you must have thoroughly prepared. If the employee is to leave right away, work through a step-by-step protocol with him (return keys, change passwords, return documents, etc.).
- Right after you had the conversation with the employee, get the whole team together and inform them about what just happened. This way you keep the sovereignty of interpretation. Especially in a startup the departure of one team mate may cause some uproar and people will start questioning the overall stability of the company. Tell them why you made the decision and what it means for them.
After having had to let go an employee I always ask myself: “What could I have done as a founder to make the employee more successful?” I think it is fair to honestly answer that question. And more often than not you will find an answer.