The guilt of letting someone go

I manage a team of people. I am responsible for their hiring and training. I interview them when they apply for a position and then I make sure that they get all that I can give them so that they may best perform their role.

This system works. We get talented people, and they meet or exceed our expectations, and they stay until they find another challenge to begin.

Sometimes this does not turn out as expected. People can interview well, and you can believe that they will work out and become a productive, self-sufficient and functioning member of the team, but until they are there, doing the job, or their version of it, you can’t tell.

I try and see the best in people. I have my team’s back. I will stand up for them and advocate for them. Nobody fucks with my team.

Recently I had to let a member of my staff go. The employee was smart, funny, and a genuinely nice person. Their approach to their duties was a little different than I had seen with other team members, but I figured they could change and pick things up along the way.

Three months prior, my manager had suggested that they thought my team member was not a “good fit” for the department. I could understand where they were coming from, but I was sure that if I could just find the switch that needed to flicking, I could preserve their employ. There was no switch. There was no lightbulb. No matter what I tried. What was worse was that other members of my team were getting their time eaten up answering questions

In the three months that my boss was talking to me about this, I kept trying to set my report up for success; I gave them opportunities to demonstrate their ability, to prove they could do it. I even found myself reaching for other skills they had, related only tenuously to their role, to evidence that they were capable of something.

Inevitably there was a Performance Improvement Plan written up, and I set up calls to check in regularly to make sure they were doing what needed to be and keeping their numbers up. The 30 day period was over in no time, so I got it extended intending to provide more training. Eventually, I caved, I felt like the attempts made by myself and my team were never going to be enough to change the situation, and the maximum possible value that this team member could provide would never offset the amount of time taken to get them to an acceptable level.

I let my boss know that I had doubts about the value of further attempts at improvement, that my team was spending more time carrying the individual than I would like, and that frankly, our efforts hadn’t made any difference; they just weren’t getting it. We were at a point where we would be better off without them given the amount of time the whole team was spending on trying to get them to be something they would never be, and then dealing with the aftermath of their attempts at doing the job.

My boss agreed with my feedback; I presented it with evidence of the individual’s efforts to improve, and to be fair; they had increased the volume of things they were doing, but with no marked improvement in the way that they were doing them.

My boss also informed me that I had to be the one that delivered this news, which stopped me in my tracks. I had been giving my all to protect this person from the very thing that I now had to do to them.

The thought of telling someone they are being let go is to me being responsible for taking away their livelihood, and the impact on their life is something for which I feel hugely responsible.

I spoke to some of my colleagues about the situation, and they were supportive of the decision I had made.

So the time came, and I had to tell my team member that despite things improving over the past 90 days, I didn’t think that the role was a good fit for them and that I was letting them go with immediate effect. I had psyched myself up for this moment, worrying about it for the preceding days and hours and minutes, right up to the point where it went down. I explained the situation and also thanked them for their efforts. They said they were surprised, but they also understood. To be honest, I think they were relieved.

I dropped off the call and felt a wave of relief almost instantly. I spoke to one of my former managers, and they said that if you feel relief, it was the right thing to do. It took me about a week to process what had happened, to start thinking about the bigger picture, and that the decision was the right one for the team and the broader business.

Taking emotion out of a decision that affects someone’s life is a hard task, and I don’t envy anyone who finds themselves in a similar position for the first time.

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