You like the employee. He or she has not stolen anything, threatened violence, or incited riots, but this person is just not working out within your organization. You know it and, more importantly, your team knows it. You need to make a change, but before you do, you have a big decision to make: Do you terminate this employee and then begin a search for a replacement or do you begin searching for the replacement while the failing incumbent continues to work for you? Your course of action is closely tied to the current state of affairs within your organization.

There are several circumstances under which Option #1The failing incumbent is terminated and a search for a replacement begins – makes sense. If the current employee has violated the law or committed an extreme breach of trust or company culture, they should be terminated immediately. No other action will satisfactorily reflect your commitment to underlying company values and delineate the acceptable from the unacceptable.

You may also find yourself in the “fire first, hire later” camp if your current employee has reached a level of incompetence where his or her best efforts create more harm than good or this individual’s performance threatens the overall accomplishments of your collective team. Also, in the case that this employee can no longer successfully control his or her work attitude, you must respond by terminating the failing employee immediately. If not, this employee will impede your team’s success and possibly wind up costing you other valuable employees who no longer feel that your organization’s work standards are being upheld.

If none of the above “fire first” criteria exist, you may choose Option #2Begin a discreet search for your failing employee’s replacement while he or she continues to work. Although this works frequently enough to be tempting, it may also create numerous uncomfortable situations, such as assigning (or not assigning) projects that might have a completion date after you expect to fire the unsuspecting employee, or violating your own cultural standards by lying to your current employee about interviews or future events where you know that he or she will not be a participant. You may also be unnecessarily preventing your employee from locating their next role and costing your company severance pay that might be avoidable.

In the case that you have a trustworthy employee who is failing to meet the requirements of his or her job, there is a viable Third OptionWork with the failing employee to openly identify and hire his or her replacement. While this may seem unrealistic, it can be the most efficient and inexpensive way of resolving a clearly difficult problem and it can help to foster departing esteem that will establish a sense of honor within your organization.

Your conversation may go something like this:

“Bill, you and I have been discussing your performance for some time, and I have come to the difficult conclusion that it is time for you to leave our company and continue your career elsewhere. I know that this is an uncomfortable situation for you, but I want you to know that if you work with me to make this change, I am committed to helping you wrap up your work here in a way that will be beneficial to us both.

I would like to announce to the team that you have decided to leave, and that you will begin your search for a new role immediately. I will let the team know that you have graciously offered to continue in your current role as we begin to interview your replacement and that if timing allows you will work with me to orient the new person and get them off to a good start.

Now, Bill, this may not work for you…if it won’t, let me know. But if you choose to work with me through this transition, I will commit our resources from not only a reference standpoint but from a proactive networking standpoint as well, to assist you in finding your next role. You will leave our organization with grace and the respect of your peers, and you will be well-positioned to continue on a successful career track. What do you think, Bill?”

There are challenges associated with this plan. For it to really work, you must assess three general characteristics of your current employee:

  1. Maturity: Is your employee mature enough to be able to deal with the likely ambiguities of an unplanned transition? Will they be able to conduct their business and your business with at least the same diligence as before, and will he or she truly be an asset to your team during the transition? Will this employee be able to manage this transition effectively without displaying negative emotions?
  2. Leverage: Consider how much you really need this employee during the transition period. Think about system security, customer and supplier relationships, business continuity, and future questions that might need answers. Simultaneously consider how much your employee needs you and your company to secure enthusiastic references, network meaningfully, and finalize severance and benefits issues. In large companies, policy dictates the answers to all of these; in smaller companies, they become points of meaningful dialogue and a mutually balanced leverage.
  3. Trust: Can you and your employee trust one another enough to uphold this “exit strategy” to which you both have agreed? At the core of any successful relationship or deal is the trust that makes it work. An employee who feels honored in the way that you are managing a situation that is already difficult for him or her will often be a good repository for your trust.

In summary, Involuntary Terminations are never pleasant for anyone involved. They often leave deep and unnecessary feelings of bitterness and betrayal. With a little creativity, confidence, and intuition however, a wise manager can work through an honorable discharge to mitigate negative feelings and create a meaningful path ahead for both the company and the departing employee.