You Can Never Fire Someone Too Early

The first time I heard the VC adage “you can never fire someone too early,” it rubbed me the wrong way.  It sounded harsh and unfeeling.  It seemed flippant. It felt trite.  It seemed, frankly, like one of those things people say in the press box, but never on the playing field.

But slowly, as with most VC adages, I found the truth in it.  Once you dismiss the initial tendency to rebuff it for its harshness, and try to really understand what it means, it’s hard to disagree with.

So what does it mean?

  • As an executive, by the time you find out there’s a problem, there has already been considerable damage done and you need to fix it right away to prevent more damage.
  • As an executive there will always be a time lag between when coworkers know there is a problem and you learn there is one.  Respect for hierarchy and politesse are just two things that delay signal transmission.  Rationalization, conflict avoidance, and denial are three others.
  • As the hiring manager you will tend to rationalize away problems because you hired the person.  Firing them would show a concrete mistake on your part and put you in the position of having to make a re-hire.  Deep down, you are rooting for individual-X to succeed and that biases your perspective and delays your decision.
  • You want a team of stars and superstars.  If you are even considering terminating someone it means, definitionally, they are not a star or superstar.  Ergo, you should not want them on your team.  This is a tough one to internalize, but it’s true.  Harsh as it may sound, the mere act of questioning whether you should terminate someone means that you probably should.
  • People who have known about the problem longer than you have are waiting and watching.  How long will you tolerate the behavior?   What does that mean about standards of competence you set?  How many subordinates will respond to recruiter calls while you figure this out?  And because your learning of the problem is definitionally phase-lagged, people may have been waiting quite a while.  You may have lost some already.
  • Empirically, when you ask seasoned managers about this topic, virtually everyone says that they never fired someone too early, but have often done so too late.  “Hire slow, fire fast” as the other hiring adage goes.

9 responses to “You Can Never Fire Someone Too Early

  1. Worth adding that firing too late does the employee no favours either.

  2. Tough subject but, as usual, Dave’s post is right on the money. The approach reminds me a lot of Ben Horowitz’s guidance as documented in “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” (one of my favorite books: it’s helped me at large companies like MSFT and smaller companies where I both had to let people go for various reasons). I’m paraphrasing what I’ve learned but here are some key principles that I found useful
    Before the conversation, understand that:
    Hiring poorly is expensive – that’s why hiring slowly and firing fast is always the best answers when there is a misfit both for the company and the employee.
    You must admit reality – you’ve got to be honest with yourself and the employee. Hiring for capabilities is not enough. You have to hire for attitude, motivation and cultural fit (for us, we look at ethics, raw intelligence and coach-ability).
    When having the conversation:
    Be clear on the reasons. You have thought about this long and hard; don’t equivocate or sugarcoat it. You owe it to them to be clear about what you think happened.
    Use decisive language. Do not leave the discussion open-ended. This is not a performance review. Use words and phrases like “I have decided” rather than “I think.”

  3. I remember a particular director hire. I knew they were incompetent after three weeks. After six months of trying to redirect and repair the damage they were doing, I decided that the entire e-staff were incompetent. How could they not see this?

    It took another three months before the director was gone. I’m still repairing damage.

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