With Martin G. Moore

Episode #34

When It's Time For Someone To Go: Handling the most difficult conversations

Sometimes a leader has to let someone go, either because of the choices an individual makes around their behaviour and performance, or through no fault of their own when their role is made redundant.

This episode deals with termination for performance reasons, and gives a brief but practical outline of these difficult situations.

We start by making sure you understand the responsibility you carry as a leader to ensure that all your people perform to an acceptable standard; it’s all about what happens before you decide that someone has to go that really matters.

Know “when” the right time is to make a significant decision like that, and our dozen ‘rules of thumb’ for handling these situations will give you a new-found confidence.

Take this on board, and don’t be that leader who avoids making necessary decisions on under performers through fear, dread, or weakness.

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Episode #34 When It's Time For Someone To Go: Handling the most difficult conversations

Sometimes as a leader, you have to let someone go, either because the choices an individual makes around their behaviour and performance, a problem with team fit, or through no fault of their own when their role is made redundant. If you don’t find these conversations difficult and heart-wrenching, then you aren’t humane enough to be a leader.

If you do find them difficult, then here’s a few tips to handle them for the sake of your own sanity and the good of the individuals involved. Here, we’ll deal with termination for performance reasons, and I’ll record a future episode specifically around redundancies.

  • We’ll start by making sure you understand what your responsibilities are as a leader.

  • We’ll address the key concept that it’s all about what happens before you have to break the news of your decision.

  • Then we’ll follow that with a few tips for how to know when is the right time to make a significant decision like that.

  • Finally, I’ll give you some dos and don’ts on your way through, a dozen rules of thumb for having those types of conversations.

But first… a listener tip!

Before we get into it, we promised a few episodes ago to include more tips from you, our listeners on the No Bullshit Leadership podcast. We got fantastic feedback on the episode we dedicated to the tips a few weeks ago. So Em and I figured we should include one where if we can.

I got a fantastic tip in this week from our listener Shane:

Shane: Hi, Marty and Em, I’m Shane from Victoria. Before I get started, congratulations on the quality that you deliver each week with the No Bullshit Leadership podcast.

My tip, which I thought I’d share, is the one thing that I wish I knew as an early leader, and that is to focus on energy management. Learn how to focus on your own and your team’s energy preservation, so your critical tasks are delivered effectively and efficiently. The more energy you use, the need for recovery becomes so much more important to long-term sustainable performance.

Let’s face it, we all want to be successful and to lead a successful team. And as Marty would say, “There’s no point flogging a dead horse.” So there’s no reason to overload yourself or overwork your team to a point where either the quality of work drops or your people do from exhaustion. Leaders who focus on recharging or preserving energy levels deliver top performance and develop top performance.

Marty: I know there are many of you out there who have great leadership experiences to share with the No Bullshit Leadership community. So please take a minute to share your tip at www.yourceomentor.com/tips.

You’re already part of this community just by listening and taking some of the leadership principles back into your workplace. But if you really want to step it up, let other listeners from all over the world benefit from your leadership wisdom. And please believe me when I say you all have some of that. So thanks again to Shane for this week’s tip, and Em and I are looking forward to hearing a lot more of them.

I’m not sure if any of you listen to Kerwin Rae’s podcast, which is aptly entitled, UNSTOPPABLE. I was privileged to be Kerwin’s guest on UNSTOPPABLE this week in what was quite an expansive and lengthy interview on all things leadership.

Kerwin is a fantastic interviewer, an incredibly successful leader in his field, and has a staggeringly wide variety of guests and subject matter, everyone from Navy Seal Jocko Willink to Steve Jobs’s coach, John Mattone, and Taylor Swift’s personal trainer, Simone De La Rue. So I’m humbled to be joining Kerwin’s guest list, and we’ll leave a link to that episode in the show notes.

Now the reason I mentioned Kerwin is because of a short video he dropped on LinkedIn a couple of weeks ago about when you know it’s the right time to let someone go. Here’s quick excerpt:

Imagine hiring someone, bringing them in, and they don’t perform, and you pay them anyway. And as a result, by virtue of you paying them, you’re literally endorsing them. You’re endorsing their performance. The entire rest of the team’s saying, “Guys, if you do not perform, you will still have a job here and you’ll still get paid.”

I’d originally planned this episode of No Bullshit Leadership for later this year, but decided having seen Kerwin’s little rant, that it was a timely and important subject to put out there.

The responsibilities as a leader

Let’s just start by making sure you understand your responsibilities as a leader. As a professional leader, you’re paid to take the resources your organisation gives you and generate as much value as possible using those resources.

One of the most important of these resources is your people. Your job, first and foremost, is to build a capability below you that will optimise results, and particularly the leadership capability as you go higher and higher in an organisation. This means you have to be diligent about setting a standard for performance and ensuring that standard is met.

If you want to be a competent leader, let alone a great leader, you need to let go of the notion of making do with what you’ve got. And you need to adopt the approach of building the best team you possibly can starting at the individual team member level.

If you’re not on top of this, you may with to go back and listen to one of my very early episodes Building a High Performing Team. You need to provide all the necessary support for your people to perform. We’re going to have more on this shortly.

But don’t be so arrogant as to think that you as a leader can drive people to a level of performance that they are either unwilling or incapable of giving. I’m seriously hoping that this next sentence will liberate you.

Every person chooses every day how they behave and perform. If they choose not to behave or perform to the standard you set, it’s on them, not on you.

Don’t let your arrogance get in the way of this little fact of life. Many leaders tend to find ways to compensate for weak players on their team. Let’s just call them “tourists”, so they don’t have to engage in the hard work of leadership. And, of course, by the hard work of leadership, we’ve spoken about this before, difficult conversations, setting appropriate standards, holding people to account for meeting those standards, and applying the challenge, coach, confront framework.

But sometimes, leaders aren’t even self-aware enough to realise that this is what they’re avoiding. Instead, they avoid this leadership work in three very common ways.

1) By micromanaging

2) By leaning more heavily on the team members who are performing

3) Relaxing the standards for certain individuals.

Now just hit the pause button for a minute and have a think about this. Are you doing that for someone in your team right now?

what needs to happen before you break the news

Just realise as a leader, that when you have to let someone go, it’s all about what happens before you make that decision and have to break the news. To get to a point where you make a decision that someone has to go you need to be supremely confident in your heart of hearts that you’ve done everything possible, within reason, of course, to get them to the requisite level of performance.

So here are the following things that have to be ticked off:

✔️You’ve explained the context in which they’re operating

✔️You’ve set realistic objectives and communicated them really clearly

✔️You’ve made it abundantly clear what the required standard is

✔️You’ve been available to offer support and guidance on the way through

✔️You’ve specifically engaged in conversations about their shortfalls in performance as early as possible to give them the best chance of lifting their performance

✔️ You’ve given specific, targeted guidance on what would have to change in order for them to be successful in their current role,

✔️You’ve made sure they understand the gravity and consequences of their inability to improve

✔️ You’ve given continuous feedback on whether you’re observing any improvements or not

These are the simple prerequisites before you can arrive at a decision.

If you haven’t listened to the following episodes before, I’d really urge you to go back and listen to two episodes:

how to know when is the right time to make the decision

So how do you know when the right time is to make a significant decision that you know is going to impact someone’s life?

Well, it’s basically as soon as you know. Generally, we all know long before we act, and that’s why we can’t delay on commencing the process.

Many leaders sit back, hoping that the person will improve, and that’s either arrogant or futile. But sometimes, despite the lack of historical performance, a leader thinks, “They’ll be better under my leadership,” without any basis for knowing why.

In the case of a historical poor performer, it’s rarely the case that they live to an extremely high standard. Just know that the most commonly cited regret of great leaders at the end of their careers is that they didn’t move quickly enough to remove the people who they knew could not do the job.

So here’s the rule of thumb. If you move twice as fast as you thought you could, that would probably be about half as fast as you actually should. For me, personally, I’m pretty self-aware. I realise that I’m three times faster at this than most, but I’m still 30% slower than I should be.

In the meantime, while you’re delaying and procrastinating on that decision, you’re sending a few pretty strong messages to your team like these:

  • “It’s okay if you don’t perform because there aren’t any consequences for that,”

  • “Your reward for being good performers is that you get to do a bunch of extra work to compensate for the weak performers.”

  • “I’m not really serious about the performance standards. I’ve told you all that I really want,”

  • “You can all choose how you behave and perform because it’s entirely optional.”

  • “I’d rather be seen as a nice person than a strong leader,” or, what everyone can see, “I’m actually a weak leader, because I’m afraid to deal with the obvious problem children in the team,” and everyone knows who the weak performers are.

It’s a sad fact that most of you, including me, would have seen a culture that doesn’t support this type of strong leadership. And I call these permissive or family cultures.

This sort of culture starts at the top of an organisation. Have you ever heard someone say this? “Oh, here at organisation x we’re more like a family,” and somebody to say this like it’s actually a good thing. For the sake of clarity, I want to tell you now, it’s definitely not. Families tolerate shit that they absolutely shouldn’t.

So Uncle Albert turns up on Christmas Day, is three parts pissed by 11:00 AM and leering at his young nieces. But the family says, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s just Uncle Albert, and we can put up with it. It’s only once a year.” Or maybe they say something like, “Well, you can’t choose your family.” Well, in an organisation you can and must choose the people, no tourists, and certainly no Uncle Alberts.

If your organisational culture is like this and accepts any old standard of behaviour and performance, this should be creating some dissonance for you, because if this podcast resonates with you, then it’s clearly at odds with such a culture. You’ll at some point face that Rubicon of whether you want to be a great leader or whether you want to fall into the warm comfort of a cosy family culture.

The dos and don’ts for when you have to let someone go

#1 As soon as you know there’s a problem, start making notes of every performance conversation you have with this individual.

This will be critical for due process down the track, and it’ll also bolster your confidence that you’ve done your best as their leader.

#2 Don’t hide behind redundancy or restructure

This is lazy and weak leadership and resulting everyone, including your top performers, seeing that you pay poor performers go away. This kills your people’s motivation, and it kills your credibility as a leader. You send the wrong messages to the individual, and they’re doomed to repeat their mistakes because of the confusion and lack of clarity you’ve provided them.

#3 No matter how many of these you’ve done as a leader, the moment you don’t feel slightly sick in the stomach about the very real and personal impact you’re having on someone’s life, that’s the moment to realise you shouldn’t be in a leadership role.

Just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean you leave your compassion at the door. You often can’t change the outcome, but you can certainly influence how it goes down.

4) Never delegate the hard conversation to anyone else, especially to HR.

As Ned Stark said in Game of Thrones, “The person who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

#5 Be direct, honest, and completely unapologetic

You should never get to the point of letting someone go unless you’ve had many conversations about the why. There’s no need to rehash the gory details here. Keep it simple. So something like, “Despite all the support, you haven’t been able to reach the necessary standard, as we’ve discussed in detail over the last x number of months.”

Don’t apologise, but feel free to express your empathy for their position. “I know this must be hard for you,” or, “Although you couldn’t ultimately meet the requirements of this role, I want to help you find a more suitable role somewhere that you can be successful and ultimately a lot happier in.”

#6 Be prepared for a number of different reactions, anger, shock, denial, acceptance, tears, arguments, or the worst, I think, total silence

Every human being processes these things differently and will take different amounts of time to get to acceptance of the situation. I must say, I’ve often been shocked that after months of incredibly direct feedback, some people still seem genuinely surprised when the gavel falls. And anyone who’s worked with me will happily tell you I’m way more direct than most leaders. And still I run into this occasionally.

#7 Get all your ducks lined up before you have the big conversation

Have the formal letters ready for them to take away. They want to know what it means for them. Be able to explain precisely the process, entitlements, and next steps. Make sure you think about possible questions and prepare a sample frequently asked questions for yourself as a guide. Get support from HR to the extent you need it. But never try to shift accountability away from yourself. It’s your decision. Own it. Don’t shy away from it, and don’t foist accountability for it onto anyone else.

#8 Be considerate with timing

I’ve seen this done on a Friday afternoon and leave the person hanging over the weekend with potentially no emotional support structure, not knowing what to tell their families and friends, and that’s pretty cruel.

#9 Even if you are confident, have an HR person in the room for this discussion

You can easily get caught out with a he said, she said situation, when people claim you’ve offered them things you may not have, but they were not in an emotional state to take things in properly. They can often help with the finer detail of contractual stuff if the questions become very granular.

#10 Most people don’t hear anything after you say, “Your time here has come to an end.”

Still, take them through the logistics, the time frames, and the support they’ll be given in the transition and so forth.

#11 … Now I know this sounds obvious, but don’t tell other people before you tell the impacted individual, other than, perhaps, the few select leaders in your organisation that absolutely need to know.

You might feel better from sharing the burden, but it’s disrespectful to the individual. So only tell those who are critical in executing the decision and potentially some of the people who are crucial in the way forward post the termination.

#12 Never make this about you

I’ve heard leaders say things like, “This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done.” Well, guess what, the person doesn’t care. It’s much tougher for him or her. And you’re a leader. It’s your job, so suck it up, cupcake, and stop making it all about you. You’ll be a much better leader for it.


  • Want these tips on hand? Download the Do’s and Don’t in a PDF here.

  • Episode 2: Building a High Performing Team – Listen

  • Episode 6: The Psychology of Feedback – Listen

  • Episode 22: Feedback Made Easy – Listen

  • Interview with Kerwin Rae on the Unstoppable podcast: Leadership lessons from the CEO of CEOs | Marty Moore – WATCH NOW


  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Enrol Now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory – Learn More


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