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Ask Dave

Firing a Rock Star

John wants to know when to fire an employee. He has a guy who's a rock star most of the time but has let things go this spring. John thinks the real problem is arrogance. Dave helps him with the approach.

QUESTION: John in Indiana wants to know when to fire an employee. He has a guy who’s a rock star most of the time but has let things go this spring. John thinks the real problem is arrogance. Dave helps him with the approach.

ANSWER: Have you ever been fired? I have. It’s a bad day in most cases. Sometimes you get fired, and you think, God, I should’ve quit earlier, but most of the time, it’s a bad day. What I always do is try to walk in the other person’s shoes for a few minutes and say I would want to have given someone every chance and have been very clear. I wouldn’t want to be surprised. He wouldn’t be surprised because you’ve just gone through reprimanding with him.

You’re really frustrated with him. For you to be unclear with him about where he stands is to be unkind. This is not a time for you in the name of being nice to not tell him where he stands.

I think you’ve got to take him for a cup of coffee and go, “Listen, here are some things you do right. I really like you as a person. You’re a good guy, but I’ve got to be real clear with you. I’m starting to have conversations in my head and with my wife about letting you go. I’ve got to be real clear with you. I’ve got to tell you this is where you stand, and here’s why. This is not a game with me. I have to have this stuff right. I have my name on this business. I take pride in the outcome. If you can’t do that, then we need to talk about why, and we need to talk about if today’s the last day or not. I need to let you know that. Is there something else going on? Is there some kind of a problem at home?” And then if he says everything’s fine, you say, “If everything’s fine in your life, then it’s getting ready to not be because you’re getting ready to not have a job. This meeting is what’s known as your final warning, and you need to bring it. If you don’t want to do that, I’m good with that. We’ll still be friends. But you can’t work here anymore, because this place is a place of excellence. You’ve got to bring it. It’s game on. We’re in the Super Bowl every freaking day. Strap on the helmet. Knock it out, baby. And if you cannot do that, it’s okay. We just need to figure that out now, but you need to know that the next time I have to babysit you after you’ve been doing this a year will be the last time, because I’m not running a babysitting service. And I’m not running a business in a half-butt manner.”

It doesn’t need to be any longer than what I just did. That was a minute and a half. I timed it. Don’t camp out on it and just beat on him. But just be very clear and very direct. If you remember in the book EntreLeadership, we talk about the one-minute manager model of the proper reprimand. You compliment the person and remind them that they are of value, you destroy the bad behavior, and then you come back and compliment the person. It’s called a reprimand sandwich. The meat in the middle is very uncomfortable. It’s not about you being a bully, and you’re not going to raise your voice. You’re not going to use any slang or swear words. You’re going to just be very kind and very firm and very, very direct. If you don’t see his body language shift in the chair, you were not blunt enough.

That’s being kind to him because that’s what I would want somebody to tell me. “Dude, if you don’t bring it, you’re gone.” That’s what I’d want somebody to tell me, and then I’d know what the rules are. Then if I don’t bring it, I’ve fired myself. It’s natural consequences of crappy behavior.

I tell the story in the book EntreLeadership, and I tell the story all the time. I had a kid here who was killing it in sales. He just couldn’t manage to get to work on time. I’m old-school. You’ve got to come to work on time.

I think if you set a formal situation where you’re having a cup of coffee in a quiet place without a bunch of people listening in and not embarrassing him in public or something like that, but you’re also not standing out on the job site. This is a sit-down, final, eyeballs-looking-in, very uncomfortable meeting. Then you’ve given him every chance, and fire his butt. If he doesn’t respond to that, let him go right then. I’ve done that too. I’m not mean about it, but that just means we’re not able to work together. That’s all that means because this is the level I play at. It’s pedal to the freaking metal, dude. I don’t play any other way. I don’t play halfway. I’m so brutally honest that no one on the team is scared of me because I’ve got some side agenda. They know exactly where we are and where we’re going. It’s easy for all of us to communicate. Some of them communicate back to me that way, too, and I’m fine with that. I don’t mind if they go, “Hey, man, that pissed me off when you did that.” That’s okay. We’ll talk about it. Let’s do it. That’s how we process stuff. But all of this behind the scenes thing and …

I used to get so frustrated, John, because I was always trying to be nice. I was always trying to be nice. I was always trying to be nice. Meanwhile, I’m about to explode. Then finally I would—not explode in anger—but the frustration would just boil over, and I would just fire somebody. It was like, no, you can’t do that. That’s not how you work because then everybody’s scared all the time. If someone leaves our organization, everyone in the organization knows that that person was given every chance to turn it around with the exception of bizarre things like if you steal, I’ll just fire you right then. There’s no second warning. I’m not going to teach you to not be a thief. You’re just gone. We don’t do that. I’m talking about performance issues. That’s where you are.

You’re in a right-to-work state—an employment-at-will state—and so you don’t have any issues with legalities.