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Knowing when to retain someone and when to let them go

How do you know when it’s time to let someone go? You’ve given them all the

opportunities but it’s still not working out. They are not achieving the standards of work required. After all, if it’s it coachable then a development plan should work. If not, then it must be time to take action?

It’s a judgement call. There’s no definitive amount you can put on how many weeks you give it, or the number of 1-1’s you do before you should let them go.

If you’re someone who goes on gut intuition, take a moment to reflect. If you’re not sure, ask yourself these questions:

  • If there was a new position going in the team, would you hire this person?

  • If the person told you they were leaving, how hard would you fight to get them to stay?

  • Would morale increase or decrease if this person left?

If the answers to the questions are indicating you should let someone go, test out

your assumptions to ascertain what’s fact or perception. Do you have a definite

basis supported by evidence that the individual is an underperformer? What specifically aren’t they doing? Are you applying any value judgements on their behaviours. For example, if the person has been late for work 3 days in a row, have

you judged that they lack commitment or are lazy - there could be other causes for their behaviours. The key here is to be tough on facts, but open minded about the causes.

It’s also important to check your biases for anything at play. Seek input from a

trusted colleague, although take care to position your concerns without leading them to the answer you want to hear! You might want to use an open question, like: I notice the team is not performing in this area, can you see any reasons why? Getting someone else’s observations can be helpful and if they bring up the individual in question, you can drill into tangible examples of what the person has done or not done. Keep an eye on your confirmation bias and be open to accepting other points of view, not just information that confirms what you already believe.

Understanding the reasons for underperformance is vital. But firstly, does the

person know? Are you having regular conversations? These don’t need to be

difficult conversations, just regular. Do they understand what they are supposed to be delivering? Do they know if what they are delivering isn’t what they are supposed to? Regular conversations enable you to have a shared view of what good looks like, and improve clarity.

Usually the first ‘go to’ when addressing underperformance is identifying if there are any development needs. Have they received enough training to address any skills gaps? Are they getting the right level of supervision to build their confidence to apply their skills?

Next, how motivated are they? It’s important to establish if they can’t or won’t do what is needed. If someone is choosing not to do something, seek to understand what motivates them and what their strengths are.

Explore what might be going on in the workplace, and listen to the language they use. If someone is always blaming other people or external events they may lack self-awareness of their actions. Are they owning the problem and showing they have got the initiative or motivation to want to improve? If not, this may be time to go down a more formal performance management route, starting the disciplinary process if there is no improvement.

It's a good idea to get HR involved early on to seek input on how you are handling

the situation. They can provide advice on things like documentation which might be needed further down the line as part of your organisation’s protocols.

If you’ve done your due diligence to put things in place to tackle underperformance, it’s important to follow up each time the person does things they’re not supposed to do. If the person improves, that’s great! If they decide the role isn't for them and leave, that can often be a more dignified outcome. If they’re not going to leave or get better, it’s time to let them go. If you don’t keep calling it out and being consistent in reminding them what’s not acceptable, it’s going to be a huge surprise when you get HR involved.


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