Five Excuses Managers Make to Not Fire an Underperformer — Leadership I.M.H.O.

Firing an employee is not an easy task. It’s one of the most dreaded tasks any manager has to take in their career as a leader. Many leaders try to justify NOT firing someone using these five common excuses. If you’re a leader of people, you have encountered these excuses one way or another.

It takes discipline, consistency, and courage to overcome these-it’s not easy, but it’s very possible. The first step is to identify and define them. Once you’ve done that, you can come up with essential steps to work around these excuses.

Good news! After reading this post, you may very well be past the first step of this journey.

Here are the five common excuses leaders tell themselves to avoid firing an underperformer:

  1. Hope that things will get better — in Leadership IMHO #18 , we talked about how HOPE is NOT the strategy to help underperformers. Somehow, you’ll need to know if the individual is capable of doing the job. Do they possess the attitude and the competence to be successful? If you’ve provided proper feedback and opportunities for this person to turn it around with not success-it’s time.
  2. They were great at their previous roles — Many organizations tend to promote their top individual performers to leadership roles. There are several occasions that these work out well, but it’s not the correct mindset. Your best individual producers may not be the best leader for a team of other producers. If it’s a lateral type of movement-moving an excellent analyst from your accounting department to your R&D department-you may see that the discipline of the new role is not the right fit for them. As Marshall Goldsmith’s book title says, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” For this instance, firing may not be the only option for you. Perhaps moving the individual back to the environment they’re comfortable in would do a greater good to them and the organization. To paraphrase a Marc Anderson quote, “If your mission is to climb a tree, would you hire a squirrel, or a prized horse?”
  3. It’s bad for team morale — If you think firing an underperformer would destroy team morale, think how morale would be if you keep a toxic individual within the team? What would it do to your top performers? How would the toxic individual affect your most positive individuals? Trust me-the team will thank you.
  4. You feel bad for the person you’re firing — It’s natural to feel bad about the person you’re firing. As a leader, you’ve learned to not just consider your direct reports’ work life, but also their personal life. You understand that losing their job will definitely impact their livelihood and how they can provide for their family. Think of it this way: Perhaps you’re doing them a favor by letting them go. It forces them to realize that they’re not in the right spot. It can open their eyes to realize that they need to be doing something else-in a place where they can thrive and be excellent. Ultimately, this difficult but essential event, may be the gateway for them to achieve their true passion in life. The passion that will elevate their professional and personal life.
  5. It’s better to have somebody than having nobody — Many leaders fear having a hole/gap in their organization. It may take a long time to find a replacement for someone you’ve fired. Recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, training, etc…it will take time to fill that gap. Leaders fear that they’ll lose the manpower to do the daily tasks for the job. Imagine keeping that underperformer in that role. They’ll leave work undone or poorly done-requiring others to pick-up the slack and redo the task. You may have the extra body in the position, but this person is not a team player or is someone who creates adversity within the team. Won’t that be worse than having a gap? It’s like having a full team of individuals trying to keep the boat afloat, while having one person distracting and pulling everyone down. As Kim Scott would say, “It’s better to have a hole than (to have) an a-hole.”

Let’s face it, firing anybody is not an easy task. As leaders, we’d prefer to find excuses or other ‘solutions’ to not fire someone. If you’ve done everything you can to help this individual improve and correct their ways, with no success, it’s time. Do yourself, your team, your organization, and the underperformer a favor-do it.

Now that we’ve articulated the common excuses leaders make to NOT fire an underperformer, let’s not get caught by any one of them. Let’s use this list to help us be more decisive in this decision.

Crowdsourcing FTW

Have you encountered any of these excuses when trying to fire an underperformer? How did you overcome these excuses? Do you have any tips on how to effectively and appropriately fire an underperformer? Better yet, can you share some tips on how to even get to the point of firing someone?

Originally published at on June 29, 2020.

20-Year Financial Services Veteran. Leader and Contributor in IT, Marketing/Advertising, PR, Lending, and Customer Service. Coach. Author. Speaker.