Knowing How and When to Let Go of an Underperforming Employee

Joe Leung

Product Leader || Founder of Bootstrapping Tools | currently at Thrasio


The Difficulty of Understanding When to Let a Team Member Go

The process of letting a team member go is one of the most difficult tasks that a manager has to go through. Whenever I’ve looked retrospectively at the few times I’ve had to let someone go; I always wish I had made my decision earlier. Most times, I dragged myself through the process, hoping to find a way to fix things and improve their performance. I’ve learned that instead of making things better, waiting until the last second, it always caused more damage to the rest of my team.

In a specific circumstance, I made excuses for an individual that was not meeting the minimum expectations of our team. I placed blame on a recent reorganization or changes to our product culture, distracting the individual and decreasing their productivity. I gave them two months to ramp up, but I received complaints from other departments during that time, formalizing my decision to let this individual go.

Deciding When it’s Time to Let an Individual Go

Provide Feedback:

Before taking corrective action, I began by checking in with my team member, who was falling behind the rest of the group. I wanted to ensure their psychological safety while trying to understand what their blockers were. I found that I was more likely to help an individual achieve standards rather than falling deeper into their rut by reaching my hand out.

On the other hand, I found that sometimes providing feedback or checking in with a team member did nothing, and they continued to underperform. When this occurred, I understood that the individual was not fit for the position and established a performance improvement plan for a certain period. If the team member continued underperforming at the end of the time frame, we would go our separate ways.

Throughout my one-on-one with the team member that was not performing, I let them drive the conversation. By doing so, I could see their thought patterns, skills, and goals and understand if they aligned with our team or not. I always felt that if I hired the individual, I saw something in them, meaning I wanted to capitalize on their strengths and unlock their potential. Even if it wasn’t a role in my team, I could transition this individual into a mutually beneficial position for the individual and the company.

Cutting Ties:

The most difficult part of this process is the actual conversations regarding leave from a company. Whenever I expected there to be negative emotions or conflict, I’ve brought in HR immediately. I’ve learned that having a third party in the room is a major benefit to delivering the message objectively without any finger-pointing.

Even if I expected a more positive outcome, I still included HR in the final decision. If something goes wrong or the team member begins to react negatively, having HR enables another individual to witness the event. Throughout my experiences, I’ve discovered that implementing a performance improvement plan before parting ways often decreases the emotional outcome from the final decision. Performance improvement plans are objective, meaning if a team member doesn’t check each box, they understand the consequences.

Talk with Your Team:

After deciding to let someone go, it is vital to be transparent with a team. I learned that it was important to protect the personal safety of the individual who left and essential to answer any questions my team had. Often, my team knew that that decision was coming. I always mentioned that the situation was isolated and related to the specific team member, not the company or team as a whole.

Tips for Letting Someone Go

  • Instead of making excuses for an individual, try and provide feedback as soon as you notice a drop in performance. Even if it’s just mentioning their lack of motivation, timeliness, or whatever it may be, check in with them and ensure everything is okay for them. Usually, when team members are truly struggling, they’re hesitant to reach out to their manager directly, meaning you should make the first step.
  • Letting someone go is always going to be awkward. No matter the circumstances or how many times you do it, it is always an uncomfortable and painful experience. You hired that individual because you wanted them to be successful. It's disappointing when things don’t turn out that way; remember to keep the entire team in mind rather than an individual.

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Joe Leung

Product Leader || Founder of Bootstrapping Tools | currently at Thrasio

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesTeam & Project Management

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