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The Self-Firing Plan

by Jeff Gau on August 16, 2018

I think it’s fair to say that the least favorite part of most leaders’ job is terminating people. We’d rather focus our attention on recruiting, hiring and growing talent. It is much more fun and rewarding.

But being an effective leader means we also have to know when it’s time to part ways and take action. Retaining an underperforming employee is a reflection on us and can impact the perception of our competency. It can also negatively impact the team and hurt the organization.

I started using a concept that I call the “self-firing plan” years ago. This works best for those individuals that you think would be “a good employee if…” I purposely use the term “self-firing plan” vs. “performance improvement plan” because it really is the last step before a formal termination. It puts the affected employee in the driver’s seat. Here’s how it works:

  • Identify and frame the issue.
    Start by identifying the performance gap and what you expect of the individual to retain employment. Share the concerns with the employee during a face-to-face meeting. Here’s an example: “I’m getting numerous complaints about your lack of follow-up and responsiveness to internal employees. This has been going on for some time. They have to ask several times and there have been times when they have not received a response at all. Their requests have been reasonable and your lack of response is inconsiderate. Communication is an important part of your job.”
  • Agree on attainable goals.
    During a face-to-face meeting, agree upon key criteria that the employee needs to meet. You should be able to put a finger on these goals. Make them both reasonable and attainable for the individual. Using the example above, it can be as simple as “if I get any more complaints regarding your lack of responsiveness in the next four weeks, you will terminate yourself.” The goal is for you to see progress, not necessarily a miraculous turnaround.
  • Set a specific time period.
    I recommend you keep the timeline near-term as much as possible, not exceeding 90 days. You’re giving the employee a second chance to show a commitment to improve over a short period of time.
  • State the agreement.
    At the end of the meeting, be clear and restate the objectives, timeline and consequence. In the case of an underperforming sales professional, for example, it may go like this: “If you don’t achieve your minimum sales target next month, you’re firing yourself.” For someone who’s not perceived as a team player, it could be something like this: “As we discussed, if we receive any complaints about you not working well with your co-workers in the next two weeks, you’ll be dismissed.” Depending on the circumstances, this can be done in writing or verbally.

As I look back, I can think of examples of employees who have taken notice and turned around their performance. Some considered it a wake-up call and never looked back. However, more often than not, the employees terminate themselves. Remember, this is called a “self-firing” plan for a reason.

As with all personnel matters, be sure to check with your human resources department and have your bases covered before taking action. This can be an effective way to give employees a second chance or part ways if necessary.

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