Management Articles


Why do managers find it difficult to fire poor performers?

By: Wally Bock

Wally Bock is a former Marine. He helps organizations improve productivity and morale. He is the author of Performance Talk ( He writes the Three Star Leadership blog (, coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences.

This is a problem common to managers in every industry. Here are a few of the reasons.

Human beings, managers and otherwise, simply don't like confrontation and all the things that go with firing involve confrontation. In fact, managing people is really the art of controlled confrontation. For that you need training in how to talk to people who work for you about their performance

Alas, managers get very little good training in anything about their leadership role. There is very little training at all for people who are moving from individual contributor status to being responsible for a group. What training there is tends to focus on bureaucratic processes (time cards, forms, policies) and not on talking to people about performance.

At the very least, new managers should get training in the following.

  • Setting clear and reasonable expectations

  • Giving regular and usable feedback

  • Helping people develop their knowledge, skills and abilities

  • Dealing with poor behavior and performance

If a manager is lucky enough to get training on talking to people about their performance, it's likely to be a single class or course. That won't do the job. It's like taking a bath and expecting to be clean forever.

So there's not much training in this area, and it's often only a single course. But it gets worse because a lot of training in talking to folks about performance gives bad advice. Here's an example.

Many programs suggest that when you talk to folks about performance you should first set them at ease by making small talk. There are two things wrong with that. First, you may not want to set them at ease. It may be more effective to have them uncomfortable so they are more aware that they're in trouble.

Second, making small talk only sets some folks at ease. It makes others nervous. Those others prefer that you get right to the point of the meeting.

Knowing how to talk to your subordinates about their performance is important, but a manager also needs to understand and deliver on the hard work you need to do if you're going to fire someone. It's a long and arduous process because of the law and because you want to be sure that the process is fair. But because it's long and arduous many managers are reluctant to do it.

If you're going to fire someone, usually you will need to have multiple conversations about performance. That involves confrontation, every time.

And, you will need to document the behavior of your subordinate. Guess what? Managers don't get much training in that, either.

Add to the above the myths that circulate about how you can't fire people, especially people who belong to protected classes, and you have a situation where lots of sub-par performers can hang on for years.

The mythology has gotten us to fear lawsuits and tells us that they're inevitable. They're not. And if you do a good job of supervising and documenting they're less likely and often winnable.

So, managers are faced with a choice. They can do an uncomfortable task they haven't been trained for and which involves confrontation over and over. Or they can back off. Many managers back off.

But there are big advantages to doing the job right. For one thing it's just as hard to do things wrong as it is to do them right.

For another, weeding out bad apples turns out to be a very good thing. One of the biggest complaints of workers who produce is their team members who don't. Weeding out poor performers doesn't just improve productivity, it also improves morale.

This won't be easy. If you're responsible for the performance of a group, take the time to learn how to supervise well and how to document behavior. Then work on getting better. Seek out advice from excellent bosses. Critique your own performance.

In the end it still won't be easy to fire anyone, including poor performers. It probably shouldn't be. But you can learn to do things in a way will make your team an example of high productivity and high morale.

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© Copyright 2007, Wally Bock

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