How to Deal With the Fear of Firing an Under Performer

Firing is the most distasteful job that a leader faces.  Firing is not a skill that’s taught in business school.  No one really knows how to do it the right way, and yet every leader has to do this unpleasant task.  Most of us will have to fire people not once, but many times throughout our careers.

So I’m assuming you know the person needs to be fired.  You’ve made that decision.  You know it has to happen.

And yet you’re afraid.  It keeps you up at night.  You’ve talked it over with lateral colleagues and superiors.  You’ve discussed it with your spouse umpteen times.  He/she is utterly sick of hearing about it and wants you to do it already.

And yet it’s there.


In the pit of your stomach.

Hunting you in the wee hours when your house is utterly still and you’re alone with your thoughts.

This is the main reason that under performers stay and stay and stay.  We don’t want to deal with them because we’re afraid.

Here’s a guide for dealing with that fear so that you take leadership in an area that only you can do.  This duty can’t be delegated, and it can’t be avoided.

Some of our fears are legitimate, and some aren’t.  Here are the main ones that I encounter:

1. We’re afraid we won’t be able to replace them

This is a legitimate fear.  Depending on the role, a person can be very difficult to replace, and this issue needs to be thought through carefully.

Build your bench

This means just what it sounds like.  You need to find candidates who can replace the fired person before you let them go.  You won’t actually hire them, but they will be on your ‘bench.’  Ask yourself

  • Who would you love to have working for you?
  • Do you know anyone who might be a fit? Think through suppliers, competitors, customers, and social and industry contacts.  Make lists.

You’ll feel a lot better about the process knowing that you have some people in mind to fill the role once it’s vacant.

Don’t be held hostage by tribal knowledge

If the person you’re firing has made themselves ‘indispensable’ you need to start taking back the knowledge that is holding you hostage.

That will mean cross-training others on their duties before you take the step to fire.  It may mean having the person document their role.  This may seem invasive, but it’s critical that the business functions once they’ve vacated their seat.

2. We’re afraid of the extra work load it will put on their coworkers

This is another legitimate concern.  You don’t want the team to sag under the pressure of an entirely new set of responsibilities being divided up among them.

Let me give you another perspective on this.  Have you ever considered that your team will be more effective once this person is gone?  You’re firing them for one of two reasons: values and/or productivity.

If they’re low on values, they may be toxic to their coworkers.  When you lose a toxic person, the team gets better.  It gets more efficient even though it’s short handed.  More likely your team will breathe a huge sigh of relief and ask “what took you so long?”

If they’re low on productivity, there won’t be as much work to pass out to their coworkers as you might think.

In either case, the impact won’t be as challenging as you might imagine, and might be a huge positive in terms of both morale and productivity with the team that remains.

3. We’re afraid of how the person will respond

Fair enough.  Knowing how they might respond will help you understand the unknown.  Typically, a person being fired will respond in one of four ways:

Shock:  Despite your warnings, the news may come as a complete surprise to them.  This isn’t unusual, because we all have an ego-based reluctance to hear or believe negative things about our selves.

If they respond with shock, be kind, and restate the message.  Don’t debate with them.  Don’t defend yourself. Acknowledge their emotion and move on.

Denial: State your message and repeat it, making sure it gets through.  Continue to repeat the message until they understand.

Anger: Acknowledge their emotion.  Don’t debate with them.  Don’t defend yourself or your decision.  Just stick to your guns and stay on message.

Grief:  Be nice.  They’re having a hard day.  Restate your message kindly.  Give them Kleenex.  Leave them alone for a few minutes to process the decision, but keep the process moving and focus on next steps.

The main thing that will protect you in all of these cases is to have a witness present.  This avoids any misunderstanding and protects all parties.

4. We’re afraid of sitting in that room delivering that message

I get it.  It’s hard.  If you didn’t feel fear you wouldn’t be normal.  We all feel it; even seasoned veterans do.  If you really enjoyed firing people, that would be a big problem!

But I’ll give you a tip about overcoming fear, and this goes for any fear that you face in life.  If you think about the fear and focus on the fear, it will get larger and eventually you’ll be paralyzed into inaction by it.  The way to combat fear is to take action.

Set a date, get the wheels in motion, and tell yourself that, “By this time tomorrow (or next week) this will be over, and I’ll be on the other side of it.”

Action defeats fear.  Don’t wait until you stop feeling afraid.  Act.  Bravery is simply acting with courage despite feeling fear.

5. We’re afraid we’ll ruin their lives

Now this fear really is unfounded in the great majority of cases.  Just because you are unable to engage the person, do you really think they can’t flourish somewhere else?

Many household names that you know have been fired, and it was for their great good.  J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter book series) was fired for inventing stories when she should have been being a receptionist.  Madonna was fired from Dunkin’ Donuts for spilling filling on a customer.  Lee Iacocca (father of the Mustang and Viper) was fired from Ford because his boss just didn’t like him.

But they all went on to better things.  Firing is not a stop sign, but a street sign saying, “Go a different direction.”

Check out this article in the Harvard Business Review expanding on research on this topic:

In Summary

Our main fears in firing are:

  1. We’re afraid we won’t be able to replace them
  2. We’re afraid of the extra work load it will put on their coworkers
  3. We’re afraid of how the person will respond
  4. We’re afraid of sitting in that room delivering that message
  5. We’re afraid we’ll ruin their lives

But action overcomes fear.  When you feel afraid, take action.  Bravery is acting in a courageous way despite feeling fear.

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