My partner Esther used to say that whenever someone I’d just fired left my office they looked like I’d given them a promotion. I had the happiest, most productive sales force in town because I tried to hire the best people and always showed my appreciation, but I learned that to keep my company healthy I also had to fire the losers fast. Over the years I developed some ways to make the dreaded process of firing someone a little bit less painful. Here’s my method.
To start off, I established a firm policy at the Corcoran Group to clean out the bottom 25 percent of our commissioned sales force each year. Firing people is the worst part of running any business, and the people best at hiring are never good at firing and tend to put it off too long. But I knew if the bottom quarter of the sales force wasn’t earning its keep, I wouldn’t be able to support the top salespeople who were making all the money. Moving our least productive people out and on their way to new careers was as important a part of my job as recruiting new talent, and I knew the faster I did it the better it was for everyone.
Extending a last minute invitation – “Would you have five minutes for me on Friday?” – always works best and is never seen as the cloak and dagger approach it is. When I break the news to the unsuspecting salesperson, I try to have another manager with me for moral support and find that their presence makes me more accountable so I won’t chicken out!
I open the meeting by asking permission to cut to the chase – “Do you mind if I’m honest with you?” People always say yes and I follow that by saying flat out, “I’m sorry, the job is not working out.” I’ve been fired from four jobs myself and I can tell you it’s bad enough being let go, but even worse sitting there through five minutes of small talk wondering why you’re in the boss’s office in the first place. I say what I need to say and keep it short.
I think giving complete and truthful information allows the individual to leave with his self-esteem intact, so I make that my #1 goal. It’s cruel to leave a person wondering what he’s done wrong or where he’s fallen short, so I take the time to spell it out. First I genuinely commend the person for what he does well by pointing out his best traits. That makes it easier for him to accept my critique of why he doesn’t fit the job. I also think ahead of what type of position might capitalize on his natural abilities and offer to make the right introductions to whatever contacts I might have. I end the interview offering a solid letter of recommendation and a willingness to act as a reference, and genuinely wish him the best of luck.
Contrary to firing someone who’s trying their best, I just relish firing chronic complainers. I’ve learned that one complainer quickly recruits another to join their pity party as “Oh, poor me,” always needs an, “Oh, poor you!” Nothing rots a business faster than a cluster of negative people, so I get them out fast – usually the minute I spot them. My best line for firing a complainer is simply, “You’re not a good fit here, I’m sorry.” The moment I show one of these chronic complainers the door, I feel a collective sigh of relief in the office!
You can actually get good at firing if you give the process enough thought and attention. The ultimate proof is when you watch enough good people move forward from a job that doesn’t fit to find a position that truly suits their talents.
Barbara Corcoran is an entrepreneur, a Shark on ABC's hit TV show, Shark Tank, and the author of "Shark Tales: How I Turned $1,000 into a Billion Dollar Business."