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"It's Impossible to Fire Anyone Here"

Whether it is during a consulting engagement, training seminar or networking event, our team regularly hears how challenging, if not impossible, it is to fire someone. Sometimes, but rarely, does it prove to be impossible—union and government teams seem to be the most challenging. More often than not, it’s challenging to fire someone because of the process that must be followed. Many leaders will admit that they simply haven’t been diligent enough in documentation and communication of issues due to the considerable amount of work that it requires. Managing someone up or out can be exhausting.

When creative leaders tell me of the process their company requires in order to let someone go, it often does sound cumbersome, but not insurmountable. From an objective third-party point of view, it often seems that the creative leader realized the extent of the issues too late and is now trying to catch up which increases the difficulty. Other times it is difficult to articulate why someone is not meeting expectations. Below are a few examples of common team members that often need to be managed out; this doesn’t include the obvious, easy reasons for which someone should be relieved of their roles (e.g., blatant insubordination, inaccurate work, consistent tardiness).

  • The Team Member Who Has Not Evolved
    Situation: John was the best designer in the department in 2005. His reviews were always “exceeds expectations.” Clients LOVE him because he will always go the extra mile, stay late or come in early to help them. But in reality, John needs to stay late or come in early because he doesn’t regularly ask for help. In addition, he’s slower than other team members because he has not learned the new functionality within in InDesign. His current manager feels bad not giving him high reviews, because he has always received them, therefore John still thinks he is an A+ team member.
    Reality: The creative industry has been evolving at what seems like warp speed in the last 15 years.  In addition, your organization’s needs have evolved to require more of your team members. The bar for “meets expectations” has changed; to consistently meet or exceed expectations, team members must also evolve. It is now time to talk to John and apologize for not being more communicative and honest about this in the past. Partner with John to create a plan to help him meet expectations in the new paradigm. Given his tenure and a lack of strong communication on this topic in the past, create a 6-month plan to allow him the opportunity to progress, but also stay strong in communicating that he needs to improve his skills. To keep both parties mutually accountable to John’s progress, schedule a monthly check-in meeting in which his progress is the one and only topic; document the discussions and progress updates (or lack there of) following each meeting. Ensure that John is properly supported in training and mentoring to aid him in this process. If John is not able to progress in this time frame, it will not be a surprise to either of you when it is time to part ways.

    1. The Good Guy
      Situation:
      Mark is really well liked in the department. Everyone enjoys talking with him, hanging out outside of work and even working with him. But Mark’s work is not meeting expectations. It’s not consistently below expectations, but often enough clients aren’t confident that the projects he manages will meet deadlines, they worry that something will be missed and often have to follow up on their emails. Mark is always apologetic and is incredibly grateful to his colleagues and clients who help him with “all of his work.” Most of Mark’s teammates are unaware that he is not a rock star, so letting Mark go would be shocking and difficult to explain.
      Reality: These situations are always challenging; it’s easier to fire people who are inconsiderate to their peers or consistently underperforming, but you owe it to the “Marks” of the world to be honest with them and to expect more of them. If their performance is not addressed and therefore they are allowed to be sub-standard team members, they’ll never grow which means their entire career could plateau. If you continue to allow Mark to slide by, year after year he’ll make more money with your organization and a few years from now he’ll be making more money than he could earn anywhere else and you will then be handcuffed to each other—and Mark will then have become “The Team Member Who Has Not Evolved.” Do Mark a favor and explicitly expect more of him.
    2. The Diva
      Situation:
      Maggie is an AMAZING web designer. Her work is far and above the most innovative on the team. Clients always request her on the project team—so long as a project manager is also assigned so they do not need to work directly with her. Project managers loathe working with Maggie. She always gets the work done extremely well and on time, but she treats them like lackeys and often talks down to them in front of clients. Her peers know she is talented, but struggle to ask her for support as she is short on patience with them.
      Reality: You don’t have two Maggies. To continue to get the exciting web projects, you need Maggie. Talking to team members about the quality of their work and their timeliness is easier than talking to them about their personality. The more subjective and personal the feedback, the more challenging it is to share. It’s important that Maggie knows she is valuable to the organization and that she has even more to offer, and it’s equally important she knows that like everyone else, she is replaceable—yup, that’s harsh and there’s definitely a softer way to deliver that message. For Maggie to progress in their organization, she needs to become a team player and recognize that she is not greater than the sum of all parts. Ensure that her performance reviews (and interim feedback) are balanced; she should be praised for her technical ability and reminded that soft skills are an equally important part of the role and her total success requires excellence in both areas.  If the behavior persists, ask your recruiters to start searching for her replacement so you are prepared to make a tough decision when the time is right.

  • With each of these scenarios and others: document, document, document. Teach the managers on your team to document early and often.  A few best practices include:
    • Within your email program, have a folder for each of your direct reports (and others in the department as relevant/necessary) to save emails related to their performance—both positive and constructive
    • Follow up verbal constructive feedback with an email—file a copy of that email
    • Remind your team that “the bar” is constantly being raised, and they need to move with that bar—this is necessary for their personal success, as well as the department’s success
    • During performance reviews force rank your team members—if HR doesn’t require this, you don’t need to share it with them if it makes you uncomfortable. But you and others on your leadership team should share an understanding of your A, B and C players and a plan to address the C players.

    Sometimes team members become complacent because there is nowhere for them to go within your organization. Before that happens, have open and honest conversations with your team members around their goals and your ability to help them achieve them—both within and outside of your organization. If your team members know you will help them succeed, even if that means them leaving your team, they are more likely to be open with you when they are job searching, which will allow you to plan better.

Jackie Schaffer

In her role as Cella VP & General Manager, Jackie Schaffer has consulted for Fortune 500 clients with more than 400 in-house team members and for teams at mid-sized businesses, government entities and educational institutions with teams as small as four designers. Her management competencies lie in operations assessments, financial management and talent management. Prior to joining Cella, she led an international "mega-sized" creative team through an evolution of production studio to strategic partner.

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