Fire Faster: Five Excuses Startup CEOs Give For Not Getting Rid of Low Performers

Letting someone go from your company because they’re failing to meet your expectations is emotional. It’s emotional the first time you do it and it’s still emotional the 100th (I’ve personally had to do it ~10 times). But, and leaders often don’t realize this until they’ve gone through it, turning over low performers is absolutely the right thing to do and in most cases you should have done it faster to benefit both you and them. At startups in particular there are a consistent set of false rationales I hear from founders as to why they haven’t addressed a low performing team member. Here they are. Avoid them.

1. We’ve got so much to do and they’re contributing something

Yes, they might not be a total zero. It’s not like they come to work, put their feet on the desk and eat crackers for 10 hours, but their underperformance is still a net negative. It usually creates work for the rest of your team to assist or fix their issues. Customers, partners, investors, candidates – anyone who touches them comes away likely less impressed with your company. You’re setting a low bar for performance and communicating that it’s acceptable. You’ve filled a seat and using dollars plus equity for someone who isn’t going to create the environment for the magic that startups require to find escape velocity. You want a horse-sized duck at your startup, not 100 duck-sized horses (I think).

2. The team really likes them and I don’t want to risk our culture

No, you’re risking your culture by keeping them. Their teammates invariably know they’re an under-performer and wondering why you won’t address it. Each day you delay is both an opportunity for the contagion to spread or for your team to flee. And wondering why you’re having trouble closing new hires? Because they’re underwhelmed by the dude you should be firing.

3. It’s my fault and a better CEO would coach them up

No, good CEOs realize that action beats inaction in this situation. You should be spending time inspiring your highest performers and helping to bring more talent into the startup. Are there things you did incorrectly during the hiring or on-boarding process which contributed to this? Maybe, but distill those learnings from a post-mortem, don’t compound the errors by delaying. Longterm it’s actually more humane for the person to give them the feedback and let them move on into a new situation where they can succeed.

4. I’m so busy and want to do this right so….

Oh the excuses – waiting for the lawyers to get back to me about a separation agreement. It’s a bad week to do this because of XYZ blah blah blah. Seriously, treat this issue as your highest priority and close it out now. Direct. Quick. Fair. Do consult your counsel to make sure you’ve got the right docs and don’t say anything stupid. If the person was there for 10 months consider accelerating them to their one-year cliff or giving them 10 mths of stock. Don’t be emotional. Don’t be foolish. You want a clean break where no one speaks ill of each other.

5. Will send the wrong signal to my investors because means we made a bad hire

Nope, your investors like to see you holding everyone to a high standard. You can tell us after – don’t sweep it under the rug – but unless it’s someone who you previously identified as a big hire or being critical to the company, you don’t need to get approval or anything. That said, most investors have seen this happen lots of times so if you want advice, feel free to reach out. Now if you turnover the entire team annually, we might start thinking the problem is with you, but there’s always going to be some amount of unregretted attrition and we expect that. In fact, a startup gets to a certain scale without have turned anyone, that’s actually a rarity (and sometimes evidence of a problem).

But Remember, Don’t Fire Someone Just Because They Disappointed You Once

Unless someone has behaved unethically or otherwise misrepresented their skills, they should be given feedback regarding their underperformance plus the opportunity to articulate to you that they understand and can correct quickly.