When to Fire Quickly

Gautam Prabhu

CTO at Opentrons



"When you have determined that an employee is not performing well, there is a lot of grey area for deciding on next steps. A lot of this has to do with your company and how much opportunity there is to take someone who is supposed to be doing a job and who cannot do it to train them up. In a small company, you might not have the luxury of training someone to compensate for a large skills gap. In a larger company, you are more likely to be able to give people time to grow and improve, or to find other roles that are better suited. No matter what, a careful, slow approach is generally how I approach decisions on performance issues."

"A careful, slow approach is generally how I approach decisions on performance issues."

There is one situation where I do the opposite and want to move fast: if someone is making their coworkers uncomfortable. In these situations, performance has very little to do with it: you can have people making a high level of contribution or a very low one. But the common denominator is that they are not only preventing the team from being happy, they are actively making it unhappy - or in some pathological cases, slightly fearful. In this situation, the person should not be put onto a performance improvement plan or offered a mentorship or coaching opportunity. They need to be let go, and fast.

"If someone is making their coworkers uncomfortable... they need to be let go, and fast."

Actions taken

"I had a team whose happiness scores had dropped substantially, and it became clear that there was a team member who was actually making people uncomfortable. Digging in further, it was clear that this individual was being actively disrespectful to teammates. In this situation, there weren't a lot of options. You can't make a slow plan for someone to stop making their teammates uncomfortable. If it doesn't work you will significantly damage a whole team of people while running the experiment. Finding another role in the company is rarely a responsible option in this situation, and neither is having someone work in isolation."

"You can't make a slow plan for someone to stop making their teammates uncomfortable."

"We had to get rid of him, so I spoke to his direct manager and told him that his team were looking to him for action. We fired the employee, and by the next week, the whole team was feeling better. It was noticeable in team meetings almost immediately - communication improved and an unspoken tension evaporated quickly. Certain issues are coachable, and when you put time and effort in you can end up with an excellent result. However, it doesn't matter if you're a small company or a big one – once someone is being disrespectful to their team, then they should no longer have a role."

Lessons learned

"I have felt that I have exited people from a company too soon, if they were having individual performance problems. I have never regretted firing someone who was making their team uncomfortable. Personality problems and problems with team dynamics are much more difficult to fix than performance and productivity issues, and they need to be dealt with quickly. The 'blast radius' of a toxic personality is very large, and the damage can sometimes be irreparable."

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Gautam Prabhu

CTO at Opentrons

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