The Secret Entrepreneur: Tears, tissues and taking one for the team

Firing under-performing staff is a necessary evil, but doesn’t make it any easier for a business owner, as The Secret Entrepreneur reveals

Ever wondered what other successful entrepreneurs really think? Our Secret Entrepreneur is here to tell the full, unvarnished, truth about life as the CEO of a fast-growing business.

Our Secret Entrepreneur has been lifting the lid on the angst, frustrations, and realities of running a multi-million turnover company right here.

In their last column our Secret Entrepreneur revealed how hard it is to step away from the business you started – and let others make key decisions. Here, they share what it feels like to sack someone, but why it can be crucial for the well-being of the company.

“One of my least favourite tasks as an entrepreneur is sacking people. It’s not an easy thing to do, and certainly not something you think of when first starting out but sadly, it’s occasionally an absolute necessity.

My first couple of attempts at letting people go were quite frankly dreadful. The English thing of politely trying to talk around the subject and not actually directly give the bad news is a disaster. In fact I’m not sure that the first person I had to let go even really realised they were being fired until they got their P45 in the post.

You probably like the person you’re firing. Unless you’re a sociopath you certainly appreciate what you’re about to do to them. But when it comes to that fatal point it’s much better to lead straight in with the bad news before anyone’s got time to get nervous. Especially you. Also, have a box of tissues available. Seriously.

On one occasion I had to let an experienced, rather expensive manager go before the end of his probation period, as he just wasn’t a good fit. He was tough as nails in the office, but when he realised I was firing him he promptly burst into tears and quite literally begged for another chance. That was not expected and without a box of tissues to hand, got quite awkward.

The thing I still find most difficult about the process is knowing when to accept defeat, because if I have to ask someone to leave, then ultimately it’s my fault. Either because I made a bad call during the hiring process (I still approve all hires) or because as a company we failed to give that person the right environment to perform (and ultimately I’m responsible for the company).

Putting the mind-numbing useless-but-procedurally-required meetings and paperwork laden HR minefield to one side (that’s a rant for another day), over the years I’ve found that it’s better to act fast, as soon as the cracks start to show. Especially if the problem is one of team fit.

Performance issues are easy to deal with – if someone simply can’t do the job they were hired for and there’s not another more suitable role for them, the case is clear cut and the decision is simple. They’re probably expecting it.

However, if your new hire doesn’t fit the team ethos, then as much as you’d like to think you can turn the situation around, experience tells me it’s almost always impossible to do. It’s also very, very expensive to find out. But not in the way you might think.

Forget the ludicrous recruitment fees you probably paid, and the time invested in interviewing candidates. Ignore the salary you’re paying too. It’s not about the direct expense. The real costs of a bad-fit-hire are the damage that is done to your company culture – something that’s hard to build but all too easy to destroy. Sadly, the real damage often only becomes apparent when you finally bite the bullet and dispatch said individual.

It’s then that everybody else breathes a sigh of relief and the real issues come out. Chances are if you thought they were a bad fit, those working directly with them had it far, far worse but were probably trying to keep a lid on things, and getting frustrated as a result. I’ve nearly lost very valuable team members because of this.

I try to get ahead of things now – our interview processes involve team sessions to help assess fit from the beginning, and they definitely help – but as you hire more people, problems still slip through and have to be dealt with. Now I just accept that I have to get on with things and deal with it head on. It still sucks though.”

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