MY LEAST FAVORITE PART of being in a management position is having to tell someone to pack up their desk and not come back--that they should no longer consider my company their place of employment--that they are fired.  Maybe it’s just my way, but even if they turned out to be the laziest, rudest, most incompetent employee, I am still apt to carry a little bit of guilt because, as their boss, there’s always the glimmer of a chance that I just failed to warn them, advise them, or make them aware of how things needed to be done, what they were doing wrong, or what they could have done to improve. 

If you’re like me (and I’ve discovered many business leaders are), you can’t help but wonder, once you’ve let someone go, if their failure was at all somehow related to your leadership.  As such, I have developed a simple but thorough system to successfully advise lackluster employees of their short-comings well in advance, without feeling like a doormat or a jack-in-the-box executioner.  I call this system the Three-Strike Rule.

Big deal, you say, you let them mess up three times and then fire them; sounds easy.  Well, that would be easy, but I wouldn’t feel good about that because it still doesn’t seem fair to me.  It doesn’t seem fair because throughout those three chances, you, as a manager, haven’t actually done anything.  You haven’t tried to change anything, and you certainly haven’t managed anything.  If you were a manager and worked for me, and I heard that you were sacking people without first trying to help them, you would be next on my chopping block.  I would have trouble sleeping at night if I gave someone the ax without helping them get better, even if I waited to count to three. 

If you’ve read my article entitled, “Inducing Productivity & Efficiency Right Out of the Gate,” then you already know that the best way to approach “home plate” with your employees is to clearly articulate their job descriptions when they start.  I don’t mean tell them how to do their jobs; I mean tell them what to do.  It’s more of a task list or list of responsibilities than a how-to session.  Quite frankly, if you (or your hiring department) hired them, it’s up to you to discern, at that time, whether or not they are qualified with the skills it takes to be successful at your organization.  The initial meeting is a great way to start the employer/employee relationship and the truth is that if you expect your employees to do their jobs well, the fair thing to do is to tell them how and give them the tools they need to be successful. 

So now, we’ll assume that you’ve given them the tools they need to be successful and it doesn’t seem like they’re getting it.  Something isn’t working with their productivity, efficiency, etc.  This is where the Three-Strike Rule comes into effect.  

The Three-Strike Rule is as follows: 

If someone isn’t performing well, the first step should be to ensure that they understand their job description.  Don’t take their word for it--make them tell you.  If they ask if they are in trouble, say ‘no,’ because they shouldn’t be.  Strike-One should be a fact-finding mission, and the facts you should be out to find are whether or not there is a communication disconnect.  If, during conversation, you discover that they might not understand their role, take this time to correct them.  Encourage them to ask questions or seek clarification; ensure that they know that the only bad question is the one never asked.  One option is to share a story about another anonymous employee who made the same mistake.  If, during your meeting, it seems like they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing (this is the more likely scenario), make them restate their task list and job description anyway. 

Once they have made it clear to you that they do, in fact, know what they are supposed to be doing, wrap up your meeting with two questions:  (1) What can I do to help you?  (2) What are your questions?  Typically, the answer is ‘nothing’ or ‘I’m good’ for both questions and you can feel good about doing everything you could, as a manager or supervisor, to help them.  More often than not, your lackluster employee will read between the lines, pick up on the fact that they are on your radar or now operating under your watchful eye, and pick up the pace, up the improvement, or remedy whatever professional issues they’ve been having.  *Note—as a manager, it’s a good idea to keep notes about the meeting, even if it’s just a brief list of discussion points; make sure you include the date, time, employee, and key points, just in case you need to reference it later.  In case Strike-One doesn’t work and soon, you see more of the same bad attitude or poor performance, move on to Strike-Two.

Swing…and a Miss.  Assuming the first meeting went well and after a bit of time, your employee is back to his/her lackluster performance habits, it’s now time to initiate Strike-Two.  Similar to Strike-One, Strike-Two is another one-on-one meeting.  Remember, as a manager or supervisor, you are in charge of the situation.  I highly encourage you to never lose your temper with your subordinates, no matter how much they frustrate you.  A boss or manager who loses his/her temper is demonstrating a lack of control.  Your employees will wonder, ‘How can he expect us to follow him or rely on his ability to control this office if he can’t even control himself?’  Keep it professional at all times, but stay firm and never tolerate excuses, because at this phase of the Three-Strike Rule, you should be ready to be pitched some doozies**.  At this meeting, the focus should be on the employee’s shortcomings.  If you took notes in the Strike-One meeting, now would be a good time to restate those key points of discussion.  It might go something like this: “On June 4th, you and I discussed that your responsibilities were this, this, this, this and this.  I know that you understood your responsibilities at that time because you very clearly articulated them to me.  However, lately, your work has been less than acceptable…”  From there, explain their faults and show them how they haven’t been meeting the company’s expectations.  Re-clarify what you expect from them; this doesn’t have to be a do-over of the Strike-One meeting, but a quick refresher of what the key facets of their position are. 

Finally, warn them of termination.  Don’t beat around the bush about this or try to use a bunch of flowery euphemisms to soften the blow of the impact.  Remember, this is business.  Ensure your employee understands what is at stake.  “Your job is at stake based on your poor performance,” “Consider yourself under review for termination,” “Your performance has put you at risk of termination,” etc.  Follow this statement up with the following question:  “Do you understand?”  It is really important that your lackluster employee give you some kind of affirmative answer here.  Once they have made it clear to you that they understand the gravity of the situation, wrap up your meeting with your two key questions:  (1) What can I do to help you?  (2) What are your questions?  Typically, the answer is ‘nothing,’ ‘I’m good,’ or just a penetratingly cold stare at the floor.  Although the meeting wasn’t on pleasant circumstances, you can, however, still feel good about doing everything you could, as a manager or supervisor, to help your employee succeed. 

If you like, schedule a follow-up meeting with the employee in a week or two.  This will either give you an opportunity to praise your employee on a successful turn-around, or, if the turn-around hasn’t isn't yet complete but they are noticeably making progress, tell them what they’re doing right, and what they could do to continue to improve in other areas.  If you haven’t seen any improvement or your employee continues to decline, perhaps your scheduled follow-up would be a good time for Strike-Three.  *Note—it’s a good idea to keep notes about your Strike-Two and follow-up meetings, too, even if it’s just a brief list of discussion points; make sure you include the date, time, employee, and key points, just in case you need to reference it later.  In case Strike-Two doesn’t work and your employee still fails to improve, move on to Strike-Three.

 They’re out.  Again, this shouldn’t be a verbal lashing or screaming session.  If you’ve been following the steps in the Three-Strike Rule, it shouldn’t have to be because, on account of your first two meetings, everyone should be on the same page by now.  At this point, there shouldn’t be any surprises.  Although I prefer the Strikes-One and -Two meetings to be one-on-one, sometimes, in this meeting, I like to include a junior executive or up-and-coming manager.  If your company is pretty big and your lackluster employee has a more immediate supervisor than you, I like him/her to be present, too.  I usually advise the immediate supervisor not to say anything unprompted because I like to maintain control of the meeting; although, I’ll ask him/her, before the employee arrives, whether or not he/she wants to add anything at the end.  If they do, they can feel free, but I always remind them to keep it professional and constructive.  “That’s what you get, jerk!” does not qualify. 

If you’ve kept your notes from the first two meetings, I recommend that you use them to back up your explanation of your decision to terminate your employee.  It does not allow your employee to take the termination personally, because you are backing up your decision with performance-based facts, figures and examples.  Depending on your employee’s reaction, the Strike-Three meeting could be as long as the other two, or just as long as it takes for your employee to get up and storm out of your office. 

Keep in mind that they are allowed to be upset, but I would do your best to maintain that your place of business is an office, not a circus, and only professional behavior will be tolerated.  If your employee starts crying, let them; just don’t let it affect your decision.  At this point, it’s too late for second-guessing.  If you start back-pedaling, you will demonstrate an unrecoverable level of weakness as a manager and it will cost you an insurmountable level of respect from everyone in the office.  If you feel yourself start to falter, look down at your notes from the first two meetings and recall how many times you’ve not only explained your lackluster employee’s faults, shortcomings and failures, but also how many times, up to this point, they have verbally demonstrated to you (in the first two meetings) that they understood.  You wouldn’t have gotten to this point if you hadn’t already been comfortable (TWICE!) with their understanding of their position.  Remember, it doesn’t mean you don’t like them; this is business.  It is likely that they will be happier being successful someplace else anyway.  Whether they apologize for their behavior or not is irrelevant.  You have very clearly and repeatedly set the standard, they have very clearly and repeatedly understood and accepted your challenge, and they have repeatedly and conclusively fallen short of your, and your organization’s, expectations.

Hopefully, you can see why clarity and conclusiveness are two facets that a good manager must master before he/she attains a position of power within a company.  You are a rock that others trust, depend on, and follow for guidance.  Make a decision and stick to it; always be fair and keep your personal opinions and emotions out of your business decisions.  If you just became a manager and think that your job is easier now than it was before you were promoted to management, chances are, you’re not doing it as well as you could.  Take a look around your office.  Observe how your employees interact with you.  Do they trust you?  Do they like you?  It’s okay if they don’t like you; what’s most important is that they respect you.  The bottom line here is that it’s never fun to let someone go.  If it’s performance-based, however, as long as you follow the steps listed above, you should rest easy knowing that you, as a manager, did everything you possibly could to guide your subordinates to success, and they chose, on their own, to fail.
*Excuses and legitimate issues are two different things.  Always keep an open ear and maintain your open-door policy (if you don’t have one, I seriously urge you to consider one).  Keep in mind that your employees are people and people sometimes have real issues.  If someone can’t seem to get to work on time, “I just can’t seem to wake up” is an excuse; “My son was just diagnosed with leukemia, his father left us three years ago, and the only doctor’s office that will accept my health insurance is on the other side of town” is a legitimate issue.  Taking the time to help your employees with their legitimate personal issues is what sets good managers apart from great managers.  Taking the opportunity to be a good person and a strong leader to your subordinates will instill a sense of loyalty that often pays back dividends in the other direction.  If a slightly better job opportunity comes around, studies have shown that employees will sacrifice a minor gain in income in order to stay with a company led by someone they trust and respect.  Admit it or not, there is tangible value that, as a manager, you have just created simply by being a good person.