I need to fire our office manager. It’s a mix of issues all related to attention to detail and organization. I’ve clearly warned her and put her on a performance improvement plan, which she hasn’t passed, so I’ve got my documentation in order. The problem is that she’s the most popular person in the office. She’s friendly, outgoing and fun and people really like her. How do I let her go without the rest of the staff hating me?
It’s tough to fire someone under the best of circumstances. It’s even harder when you’re worried about what the reaction will be among the rest of your team. And it’s a reasonable thing to worry about; in fact, one of your most important audiences when you let someone go is the rest of your staff. They’ll pay attention to whether the person is treated fairly and compassionately, and will draw conclusions about how well they’re likely to be treated themselves.
However, the important point for you to realize is that most people — particularly good employees — can like a coworker personally while still realizing that the person’s work has problems. While it’s true that no one likes to see a friend fired, most people can separate personal affection from professional assessments, even when they’re friendly with the person being let go. And in the case of an office manager who struggles with organization and attention to detail, it’s highly likely that her coworkers have observed that her work isn’t going smoothly, since those sorts of problems in an office manager tend to affect a whole staff.
In fact, you might end up surprised by how understanding people are. In almost every case, keeping a low performer on staff is an enormous morale drain for other people; good people want to work with people who pull their own weight. And if you’ve ever worked somewhere where shoddy work was tolerated, you know how frustrating and demoralizing it can be when a manager doesn’t do anything about poor performers. So, it’s likely that your staff has spotted the problems and understands that they needed to be resolved — and might even be relieved the problem has been addressed.
The key thing here is to be open with your staff about how you address performance problems in general, so that they understand you don’t make arbitrary or unfair personnel decisions. Make sure they understand that people are clearly warned and given a chance to improve before being let go (with some obvious exceptions, like embezzling or punching a coworker). Otherwise, you risk creating a climate where people worry that they could be fired without seeing it coming. But as long as you’re open with your staff about what that process looks like, and as long as they see a pattern from you of being fair in how you deal with people, it’s pretty likely that they’re going to understand what happened.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.