A Positive Method for Firing Someone

Eli Chen

CTO at Veriph.ai



"I was part of a fast-growing startup where I had to let go of one of our first engineers on the team. He was a great fit for our company as an early-stage startup. Back then our goal was to iterate as quickly as possible, listen to customers, change direction, and find market fit. He was able to do things faster than I thought was humanly possible. Because of this, our company was successful and we grew from series A to series B. Consequently our goals shifted. We were no longer emphasizing speed and development, but good engineering practices like discipline, scalability, reliability, and compliance. This particular engineer was no longer a good fit because the requirements of the job had changed. It became clear, not just to me but to the rest of the organization and the engineer himself, that he was struggling and was no longer in his element."

Actions taken

"Once his struggles were apparent, I started giving him feedback. We had discussions on how we could grow him to the point where the company needed him to be. We went through a few different direct but respectful conversations. We talked about what was happening in the context of the company, that the needs of the company had changed from quick development to reliability, his ability to meet those needs using his skills, whether these were the kinds of problems he'd like to solve, and the steps that he could take to get to that new point.

One area that was especially problematic for him was communication. In a big company environment, communication is critical. This is due to the exponentially increased complexity with people and collaboration. He simply wasn't good with this. He liked to be fast and loose rather than to communicate effectively.

We worked through these challenges for a few months until I got to the point where I felt like our he could not improve to the point of resolving the problem. I put myself in his position and empathetically expressed that I knew that he was struggling and that he was used to being a superstar engineer. He was no longer holding that status and in fact started losing the trust of the team. Even though this news didn't come as a surprise, it was still difficult for the engineer as he was one of the first people in the company and had watched it grow.

Ultimately, he left the company. But before he did, we had a farewell celebration. We didn't tell the team exactly why he was leaving but stated that he wanted to explore opportunities elsewhere. We wanted to be respectful and let him maintain his dignity. And although I had to let him go, I am proud of the way things worked out. The engineer later told me that he found the experience to be educational and told me about the lessons he learned through that period. I, myself, was proud that I did what was good for the company while also making that engineer feel like he got something out of it as well. The two of us maintained a good relationship after he left and I ended up recommended him to other startups who were looking for an early-stage fast-paced developer type."

Lessons learned

  • "Performance management and letting people go does not have to be a negative or painful experience. My philosophy is be direct but respectful. Be transparent but do what is humane. Use hardships as an opportunity to coach and mentor, even if the person is leaving the company. You want them to know why they are leaving and hopefully give them a chance to learn something from the experience. Additionally, it's best if they leave on a positive note so that they can recommend the company to their friends, people who might be a better fit for the role."

  • "As a leader, try to to ensure that all parties have a clear understanding of the reasons, reasoning, and rationale behind the lay-off. Even though the person may not agree with it, it is ultimately your decision and you must do what is in the best interest of the company."

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Eli Chen

CTO at Veriph.ai

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill Development

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