Finally, I accepted that this solution was unworkable and that I had to terminate him. With HR's go-ahead, my manager had me write out exactly what I would say to Seth when dismissing him. The HR manager would see Seth afterward to finalize the paperwork and escort him out.
I called Seth into my office and told him that we had exhausted all options and I needed to terminate him. I gave him a copy of the prepared statement and read it as he followed along. His response was both pathetic and poignant. "But I want to continue working for you," he said. I'll never forget that moment.
This experience made me much more confident about handling terminations. The following is a list of lessons I learned:
- Be open to circumstances that change your initial impressions. First impressions of an employee are just that; they are not the whole story
- Be alert to signs that something is wrong. Persistent complaints—such as the grumblings of the people Seth came in contact with—warrant attention
- When there appears to be a personnel problem, start collecting evidence immediately and keep a log of issues and concerns
- Seek HR's help early on. In retrospect, I had come to believe that Seth had some sort of problem other than incompetence, but I was in no position to diagnose him. And this particular HR department was no one's preferred source of support. In recent years, by contrast, I've been impressed by the quality, proficiency, and IT savvy of HR personnel in the companies I've consulted to. If a similar situation happened today, I'd seek HR's guidance at the first sign of a potential personnel problem
- Don't be wishy-washy. If the evidence strongly suggests the person should be terminated, have the courage to do it. Retaining the person indefinitely in hopes of some miraculous change in personality or performance level takes a toll on everyone and only defers the inevitable
- Make the termination final. Don't make it a conversation or a negotiation, and don't leave the door open for alternatives. Having a prepared termination speech spared me from the hemming, hawing, and gulping that might have overtaken me otherwise