Wednesday, 19 August 2015 13:31


“Everybody loves Tony. He has been with the family business for years and is a great guy. Over the last several months, however, his job performance was slipping. He has been coming in late and when he is here, he isn’t performing at the expected level. He misses deadlines, forgets about meetings with customers, and is irritable. I have talked to him and told him that he needs to turn it around. I didn’t document anything because, well, you know, it was Tony. I think I have to fire him. What should I do?”

This is a common question I hear and one that many small business owners face. The employees in a small business are like family. Many have been with the company for a long time and have become a “fixture” in the organization. All the customers know them and all the employees go to them with questions. Even we, as owners, seek their advice from time to time. All of this makes it increasingly difficult when the employee’s performance starts declining.

Many times when an employee’s performance starts slipping, we let it go. We think it was just a bad day, or a bad week, or a bad month. Typically several months go by and we haven’t taken any action. We may have had a conversation or two that lets the employee know we need them to step it up, but nothing is documented. If we are honest with ourselves, we probably weren’t clear in conveying the seriousness of the situation to the employee when we talked.

The truth is, discipline and termination are difficult in the best of circumstances. When managers have to discipline or terminate a long-time employee or one that is a family member or a friend, it becomes almost impossible. However, the bottom line is their behavior is causing disruption to the organization and it has to change. As uncomfortable as the conversation is, as the employee’s supervisor we have a responsibility to manage their performance and take corrective action when necessary.

There are three steps that can help us through these challenging situations.

  1. Set clear expectations for all of your employees.

    It is imperative to set expectations up front and communicate the employee’s role within the organization along with the level of authority and autonomy they have in that role. This is especially true when hiring a family member or a friend. If the expectations are not firmly set up front, you are not working under the same understanding of what the job duties are and what they are not. Continually clarifying those expectations helps down the road when disciplining or terminating the employee because what is expected is known. In addition, once those expectations are not met, it makes having the coaching conversation easier as you can refer back to what had already been established. If the groundwork is done, and the expectations are known, often times this coaching conversation is the only thing you need to do to get the employee to change their behavior.
  2. Don’t be afraid of conflict.

    Zig Ziglar talked about eating frogs. His philosophy was all the bad things we have to do in our day are “frogs”. And when you deal with the bad thing, it is equivalent to eating a frog. If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, how bad can the rest of the day be? If you don’t eat it first thing, then you have to stare at it all day and anticipate how horrible it will be when you do eat it. In this case, the “frog” you’re dealing with is your employee’s behavior. Even when the employee is a long-term employee, a family member, or a friend it is still important to tackle their poor performance head on. Talk to them. Tell them what is expected and the timeframe they have to accomplish the correction, then, document the conversation. If the employee doesn’t correct their behavior, formally write them up and review the written warning with them. Taking this action is easier said than done in some cases, but conflict helps everyone involved grow. Face the problem quickly and help the employee start down the road of improvement as soon possible.
  3. Separate your identity from your role.

    We may identify as the employee’s friend, but it is our role as a manager to correct their behavior. We need to work with the employee so they understand the problem is not their personality, but their behavior. It is hard to separate our friendships from our working relationships. I recommend an upfront conversation that addresses that issue. If you hire a friend or a family member, or find you have developed a friendship with a long-time employee, talk to them and discuss the differences between your friendship and your role as their boss. Talking to them before a problem exists can make the tough conversations easier down the road. Keeping your identity and role separate is a very important step toward easing the struggle with disciplining or terminating employees.

Disciplining or terminating a long time employee, a family member, or a friend is a painful process. The pain does not mean you should ignore the problem. Implementing the above three steps can ease that pain.