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How to get over your fear of firing employees

To put it bluntly: Firing people sucks. I didn’t always think this way. Early in my career, when I worked for a large regional specialty store as a department manager and then as HR manager, part of my job was to terminate people. It was mildly uncomfortable, but they had gotten their warnings—they should have known not to do it again. In my early career, I probably fired a dozen people. I didn’t lose a ton of sleep over it and didn’t think it was all that challenging.

But later in my career I learned a key difference: Firing someone for “the man” is uncomfortable. Firing someone when you are “the man” can be excruciating.

I know this from experience too. I witness it every day: Building products executives continually hanging on to underperforming sales reps because they don’t want to have difficult conversations, they feel bad about firing someone, or they don’t have any confidence they can find anyone better. How much is that complacency and fear costing you? Here are a few strategies to help ease the pain of firing:

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  • Stop overselling: I made this entrepreneurial mistake. I would sell them on me, the company, and the opportunity. I never stopped selling. Don’t make this mistake; if you only paint a picture of sunshine and roses but don’t cover some of the realities of the role, they won’t know what they’re getting into and won’t be able to determine if it’s not a good fit for them before they start wasting your payroll dollars.
  • Stop making excuses: If you have someone on your team who is wonderful, but just isn’t that great at his job, own that you made a mistake in hiring him. I used to come up with a million excuses for why they weren’t performing—I hadn’t trained them enough, I hadn’t given them enough resources, I wasn’t good at holding them accountable. Just stop. There’s only so much you can do and only so long you can wait for a subpar sales rep to magically get better at their job. Rip off the Band-Aid.
  • Ditch the “savior complex”: The savior complex is what happens when you start to feel responsible for the employee’s mortgage, car payment, and daycare bills. “If I didn’t get them to succeed in this job, I was the failure.” It sounds crazy, but I’d venture to guess that if you have someone who isn’t succeeding in your organization, these self-doubts have crossed your mind.
  • Admit when your company is growing faster than your rep: The person you thought was awesome when you had $750,000 in sales may not be able to keep the pace when you have $5,000,000 in sales. Sometimes your company outgrows your people. This is awesome and awful at the same time: You’re forced to either try to find a place for them, which usually results in paying someone too much money for the job they’re now doing, or you’re forced to let them go. Again, rip the Band-Aid off—it hurts when you pull it off, but it is better in the long run.
  • Reframe firing: Do you find yourself making excuse after excuse for the people at your company who aren’t able to close deals? But think about it: Who wants a job they suck at? No one. If they can’t admit that this is a bad fit for them, you can’t make that decision for them. It’s a lot easier to fire someone and feel OK about it when you know in your heart they’d be happier doing something else.
  • Keep the person in mind: Underperforming or not, this is a person you liked enough to hire and make part of your team. It doesn’t have to be adversarial—make sure to be respectful and professional. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve fired (or talked into quitting) who still invite me out for dinner and drinks.

Firing someone stinks. But the longer you wait, the worse it will be—for your comfort level as much as your bottom line. Be ready to rock 2019 by getting rid of your dead weight and positioning your business for the growth you want next year.

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