The Moral Crisis of Firing an Employee

It’s not that he didn’t work hard; in that respect, he was a model employee.

It’s just that someone else could do his job better. Even if he could summon up the ability to perform at his dead-level best every single day, he’d still fall short of what I needed from his position. So, I decided to make a change.

And that’s what threw me into a moral crisis.

Moral Crisis of Letting an Employee Go

The employee in question — we’ll call him Doug — was a great guy. He was an on-air announcer. A hard worker. A devoted husband and a father of two great kids. He was also a friend.

When I had taken over as general manager of the radio station at the frightfully young age of 29, each of the announcers was making maybe $14,000 a year. A paltry sum, even in 1991. It bothered me. My faith tradition teaches that “a worker deserves his wages,” so I felt an imperative to get these folks a raise.

For over a year, I hounded and haggled with the owners until I got a substantial pay increase for each of the announcers. Mid $20s, I think. Still too low, but much better.

Yet even with his higher salary, Doug and his family were struggling financially. And here I was, making a decision to let him go.

That was my crisis.

The change made sense. There was another announcer who worked at a station across town who was interested in working for us. He was a pro. A legend in St. Louis. He was going to cost nearly three times as much as I was paying Doug, so in order to hire him, I would need to let Doug go. And probably another guy too.

The decision weighed heavily on my soul.

A Moral Crisis Becomes a Spiritual One

It wasn’t the idea of firing someone that bothered me. I had let someone go a year before. But in that case, the decision was easy. The guy had been involved in questionable business practices.

This was different. These guys had integrity. They’d been with the station for a long time, working from a sense of mission. They were good people.

But the guy across town would make the station sound much better, make us more competitive. I felt crushed between the obligations I had to my company and basic human compassion for my employees.

Greg, you hold their livelihoods in your hand, for crying out loud! What would their families do if they lost their jobs? How would they make ends meet? What dreams of theirs are you about to crush?

I felt like I was playing God.

I wept. I felt a persistent pain in my gut, as if I needed to relieve my bowels.

This is the side of leadership that most people never see: leaders suffer alone.

I needed to talk it through with someone older than me; someone who’d walked this path before.

I called Ed Gardner.

Ed was the principal of the junior high in my town. He was universally respected in the district. He was a strong leader and a man of integrity. He was also a deacon in my church. (I’m sad to say that Ed died of cancer in 2003. As a testament to the love and respect he’d garnered, our community named the grade school after him: Gardner Elementary. It’s located at #1 Ed Gardner Place.)

When Ed answered the phone, I broke. I tried to speak, but couldn’t. Through my tears, I managed to choke out five words, “I need to talk, Ed.”

“I’m here, Greg. You come over now.”

I fell into the couch in his living room and vomited up the bile. Ed listened.

Forty-five minutes later, I said, “What should I do, Ed? Am I making the right decision? Am I over-thinking this? I’m being silly, aren’t I?”

“No, Greg, you’re not being silly. Leaders — good ones, at least — never find this stuff easy. I can’t tell you what to do, but let me give you some things to think and pray about.”

I listened.

How to Make a Good Decision When Firing an Employee

If you are a leader who has ever felt the weight of your calling as it affects the lives of those you lead, let me share with you some of what I learned from Ed, along with some wisdom I’ve picked up on my own.

  • Before making a decision to let a person go, give them plenty of time to improve. You do hold a person’s livelihood in your hands. You mustn’t take that lightly. Guide them. Give constructive criticism. Give them training and guidance and the time they need to grow. If you’ve done all you can and they still aren’t where you need them to be, then make the tough call.
  • Find the balance between the needs of the employee and the responsibility you have to the long-term interests of your company. This is difficult. Fire someone rashly and you might lose a potentially great employee. On the other hand, if you hold onto someone who clearly can’t cut it then you might damage the reputation of the company. And you’ll likely frustrate others on your team who are pulling their weight. Find the balance. Think win-win.
  • Refusing to fire a sub-par employee keeps them from their true calling. How many people do you know who’ve been miserable in one job, got fired or left, and then found deep satisfaction in their next position? You might be one of them. The truth is, people want to succeed at work. Even if they’re miserable, many people will stay in their current job out of fear. If a person cannot succeed with you, let them find success elsewhere.
  • Trust that God will take care of the person. This is not a cop-out. When you’re convinced that you have treated the employee fairly and respectfully, it’s time to release yourself from any anxiety that may arise from making the hard call. Trust that God cares for the person’s well-being infinitely more than you do. He’ll take care of them.

How it All Turned Out

In the end, I decided to make the changes. The guys took the news as best as can be expected.

I’m pleased to say that each of the guys quickly found employment elsewhere. One was promoted into a leadership position at his new company, earning much more than what I was able to pay him at the time. The other got a job at one of the largest stations in St. Louis.

As for me, I continue to seek the win-win. To find the balance. I don’t go through the emotional anguish like I did back then, but it’s never a decision I make flippantly. I still enter the struggle. I believe it makes me a more empathetic leader.

It will do the same for you.

Questions: What about you? How do you find the balance between treating employees with respect but still guarding the interests of the company you work for? Share your thoughts below in the comments. 

Author: Greg Lhamon

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  • Steve Sassi

    Greg – I want to work for you. I’m sending my resume right over.

    • Thanks Steve. If only you were serious….

  • Kassandra

    Hi Greg,
    This is a very worthy topic and also quite true that the boss suffers alone. I just had to fire an employee that had been with the company for over ten years. It was a process and it did bring up quite a bit of questioning my desire to make things right for the company and for the employee.
    You covered some valuable points.
    Thanks,
    Kassy

    • Thanks Kassy. The longer someone is with the company, the more difficult it is to let them go. Yet, if you conclude it’s necessary, you have to do it. But that doesn’t make it easier.

  • Doug Smith

    Great post Greg! I’ll never forget years ago when applying for a leadership position I was asked in the interview, “How good are you at firing people?”

    The question took me aback. I literally sat there for what felt like several minutes although I’m sure it was just a few seconds. I answered “I’m good at it, but I hate it and will work to keep every employee who really wants to and should be there.”

    The interviewee smiled and said “great answer.” I went on to say much of what you just said – that at times the best thing you can do is fire someone.

    As leaders we should never take it lightly, we should lose some sleep over it. But sometimes the worst thing we can do is keep an employee that should not be working for our company.

    It is a very lonely decision, and will cause some to think us heartless. If they only knew! It’s one of the costs of leadership, but one that I pay gladly for thr privilege of leading.

    • Very well said, Doug! And that really is the perfect answer to a legitimate interview question.

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