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Seven Excuses Managers Use for Failing to Fire and Why They Should Reconsider

Carolyn Betts Fleming
July 19, 2019

There are as many hiring methods as there are companies looking for talented candidates, but throughout the business world, there is an immovable adage: When you need to, fire fast. You’ve identified that this person is not a fit between their attitude, metrics, or other failures.

When do you make the call?

With all of these red flags, why are people not letting these employees go?

Yet, for all the known benefit of letting someone go swiftly, there is little evidence managers fire staff fast enough. Why are they dragging their feet, and what are the consequences their companies face when they do?

Excuse #1: I don’t want to be single.

A lot of managers compare firing an employee to breaking up with someone, especially when they want to delay it. Upcoming big events or vacations are great excuses to put off the inevitable because it seems like having an employee is better than not having an employee.

No one wants to be left to do the work alone. But think about how much time you are spending managing an underperforming employee. Many managers are wary of spending too much, up to 80 per cent, of their time on poor performers. Think about it: What else could you do with your time?

Excuse #2: Everyone likes the employee.

Managers are often reticent to fire someone if they are well-liked at the organization. Harvard Business Review calls this person the “lovable fool.” They are not doing their job well but there is a fear that you can upset your team if you let them go.

However, it has the opposite effect: When you keep people who are not working well, it shows the team you do not have to work hard to survive if people like you. It lowers the standard for everyone. And when they leave, you might discover that while everyone liked the employee in the coffee room, their likeability dried up when others had to rely on them.

Excuse #3: They will blast us on social media.

With anonymous posting sites like Glassdoor, fired employees can immediately take their anger into a public forum and that can have an impact on hiring, especially for companies with strong competition for talent. However, underperforming workers with a negative attitude can decrease the performance of the entire team. Not firing someone is no protection from anonymous trash talking, and if that person is breeding toxicity in the workplace, they need to go.


Many social media users are savvy enough to identify and ignore a trash-talker in their midst. If most of your reviews are positive and many employees are happy at your company, the voice of one angry ex-employee will soon fade into the background.

Single Grain CEO Eric Siu has a horror story of how failing to fire underperforming staff nearly cost him his entire business.

Excuse #4: I’m not 100% sure they should go.

Some managers do not have enough faith in their own staff assessment processes, so they second-guess their gut feeling that the employee needs to go. I use three key questions to rate performance:

  1. Are they hitting performance targets?
  2. Do their metrics indicate they are putting in the work?
  3. Do they have a positive attitude? 

It is a balance of these three attributes. You can generally coach towards performance targets but I want to see a great attitude and evidence they are working hard. I am pretty big on firing people with a bad attitude.

Excuse #5: It’s nothing a little performance management can’t fix.

Performance Improvement Plans can be powerful performance management tools to correct the course of someone who is not on a successful track. However, I want to caution against how they are often used: At the very end of an employee’s tenure, as a soft way to push someone out of the organization.

Instead of waiting until it is the last weapon in your arsenal, start a conversation around performance management as soon as the your employee’s performance begins to slip. The signal should not be that they are at risk of losing their job, more so that you identified the issues and are willing to invest the time in them to be successful. You need to be able to have tough conversations early and frequently – otherwise, it feels like a pile-on and it frustrates everyone.

These conversations can be difficult, but managers need to have them with people who are not a good long-term fit for the company, which suffers for it.

Excuse #6: Maybe I didn’t show them how bad it was.

Manager jobs are busy ones, and they often have responsibilities of their own. Many managers do not want to spend all their time on poor performers, so they feel guilty that they did not give enough time to a failing employee.

The answer is daily accountability. When an employee has not met performance expectations, the manager should:

  1. Call it out in private and set expectations that it will be addressed immediately.
  2. Take note of whether it appeared in daily check-ins – like in a morning Standup meeting.
  3. After three or four days, call out the employee for not doing what they asked.

This communication style means problems are recognized and discussed quickly, rather than allowing them to linger.

Here is a guide for managers on shifting the employee conversation from “you’re terrible” to “here’s what we need.”

Excuse #7: Perhaps they will learn from my top performer.

Some managers think that poor performers just need training and that pairing them with successful employees will help. The answer is: It depends.

There is a benefit to championing great work and setting up a framework where employees can learn from your top performers, but only if the employee has the potential and attitude to make it work. If they do not have the right attitude, managers are simply wasting their top performer’s time by pairing them with someone who is not a good fit for the company.

What else is a poor employee fit costing you?

So it is clear that failing to fire poor-performing staff is costing your organization in terms of money, time, and morale. And while most managers expect morale to go down when someone is fired, in reality, the opposite often happens.

Hopefully, these resources will give you the tools you need to make the right decision for your company and your team.