Before You Terminate, Find One Positive Thing


July 19, 2010

I want to share a story with you.  It may not be a “real”, but it is certainly a story that nearly everyone can relate to.

The story is about you, a mid-level manager at a large organization.  You’ve worked there for eight years and you are doing ok from a performance standpoint.  You meet most of your targets, you attend the mandatory training that HR makes you attend to learn leadership skills, and sometimes, you try to apply what you learn with your team.  Mostly, you don’t.  Your view of the business world is that it’s just work and that is why they pay you to be there.  You’re a hard worker, but you don’t feel passion for the work or for the mission of the organization.  After all, you just need the paycheck.

You’ve been managing a team with average turnover for the last five years.  Lately, one of your long-time employees has been taking a nose dive in the performance area. She seems generally disinterested at work, she misses deadline after deadline, and her colleagues have grown tired of trying to cover for her.  Today, it’s taken a turn for the worst. She has lost her temper with a client on the phone and now you’re having to pick up the pieces.  You’re feeling like you’ve had enough.  You cannot think of one positive thing she has done.  You want to fire her.

But should you?

Here’s where the decision gets challenging.  On the surface, the answer could be yes.  But, are you missing something?  I think you are.

The positive thing she has done today is SHOW UP.

Yes, that’s it.  She may have been late, missed yet another deadline, and even been rude to a client, but she is there.  That IS a positive.  She could have made many other choices such as calling in sick, lying to cover her tracks, or even quitting.  And, while she definitely needs to make major improvements, the mere fact of her showing up may be all she can muster today.  And, let’s face it, you haven’t been doing all you can to manage her.  From an attitude standpoint, you are not setting the example.

So, what can you do differently to attempt to turn this around before you throw in the towel?

  • Show sincere interest- You may have missed opportunities to connect with this employee in the past, but no longer.  Sit down with her and have a real heart-to-heart.  Be honest in your feedback but without making it a personal attack.  Ask ALL open ended questions.  Tell her you’ve noticed the change in her performance and ask her to just talk to you about what is going on.  Don’t make any judgments in this initial conversation.  Tell her you are just there to talk to her about any issues and that you’ll think about what she tells you.
  • Team to find the solution- Schedule a follow up meeting to address the issues.  Work together with her to brainstorm ways to address them.  DO NOT come at her with a bunch of solutions.  Make the employee tell you what she thinks will work.  Then, incorporate that with your ideas.  If she doesn’t buy into the solution, she will not have any chance of being successful.  Refer her to EAP if any of the issues are more personal in nature.
  • Give a realistic deadline for improvement–  I am always interested when managers want to terminate long term employees when they have not improved in a week after being talked to.  That is not enough time.  Give at least 30- 60 days to start seeing steps to consistent and sustained improvement.  By then you will really know if this employee wants to turn it around or not.  Tell the employee up front that you want her to succeed and will help her, but it is ultimately up to her.  Be a support during the review period.

It can be so easy to write someone off.  Be sure that you are looking for the positives…even if it is just ONE small thing.  What do you think?


  • Firing that hypothetical employee is the easy way out, for certain. To me, it shows that you just gave up.

    From the context of the article, the boss in question isn’t terribly motivated, either. If you’re there just for the paycheck, then this lack of passion spreads all the way down to the custodian who only makes certain nobody sees any major dirt after s/he cleans.

    Then there’s protocol- have you given the employee the proper amount of warnings as per company policy? Is being rude to a client on the telephone a grounds for immediate dismissal? What about the performance issues? Were they ever officially addressed?

    In the end, if you have not addressed the other issues before the “big event” that makes you want to fire the said employee, then you as boss haven’t done your job. If the employee was showing up and just coasting along, it seems like there is a disconnect in getting this person to play as a team member. Again, in many ways, unmotivated employees can be a reflection of an unmotivated boss.

    I am with you on this- see the positives and try to address the challenges this hypothetical employee is posing as far as productivity is concerned. After all, just giving up on this person shows failure on your part, as well.

    Great article, like always!!!

  • One more thing-

    your article made me write one about motivation on my blog!!! Thanks for the inspiration!!!

Comments are closed.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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