We never forget our first.

Of course, I’m talking about the first person that we have to fire as a manager. My first experience was an incredibly nice sales rep who was more than twice my age. Al had been with the company for twenty years and was a wealth of knowledge.

When I joined the company out of college three years prior, Al graciously hosted me for a week. He took me on sales calls, bought my lunch and shared his accumulated wisdom. Al had a wife he adored and three children who were older than me. I liked Al very much.

When I took this first management role, I inherited a sales team of fifteen sales reps, situated in the Midwest. I knew these sales reps well, having been one of their peers for the past three years. I knew that Al was the weakest of the group, by a wide margin.

Al was stuck in the past. Our industry had changed, and customer spend was no longer coming from his traditional customers in the steel industry. The account managers who were producing were routinely prospecting and breaking into new industries like energy, oil, chemical and telecom. Whether he was incapable or uninterested, Al chose to stick with his milk route of traditional customers and their shrinking budgets.

Making matters worse, I was enabling him. Deadset on “helping” him turn it around, I spent more time in his territory than anywhere else. I went on calls with him, built out prospect lists and helped him negotiate internally for better terms to close deals. I did all of this, though he was delivering half of the production of my other account managers.

Meanwhile, our business was accelerating in Minnesota without a sales rep. The market was strong, and our operations team was developing several key accounts. With commercial support, this territory could take off. I needed to hire someone in that territory, but I was restricted to fifteen reps in my territory. When I approached my manager, he was quick with a solution.

“Sure, go hire an account manager in Minnesota. Before you do that, decide which of your current positions you plan to eliminate.”

Al worked in Ohio, where we had four account managers and declining business. The other three account managers were solid and could easily take on his accounts with no drop-off. In fact, they would grow his account package as would this new Minnesota account manager.

After one year in my role, my team’s sales were flat and I understood that if I didn’t move on this obvious business decision, my manager would find someone who would. The only thing keeping me from making this move was personal sentiment. Fortunately, I worked for GE, where our CEO, Jack Welch, famously said: “Control your own destiny or someone else will.” What would my boy, Jack, do?

I talked with my manager and laid out the plan. I would eliminate Al’s position and create a new position in Minnesota. He agreed and asked that I talk with our HR Manager.

In large companies like GE, Human Resources is a business in itself. The scariest thing a manager at GE could hear was, “We’re here from HR and we’re here to help.”

I set up the call and my fears were justified. A shrill and condescending manager fired questions at me for thirty minutes.

  • How old was Al?
  • How old were his peers?
  • What did Al receive on his last three annual appraisals?
  • Had I documented his performance issues?

During this discussion, I made the mistake of admitting that this would be my first termination as a manager. This HR manager decided she would need to attend this meeting, via conference call. Worse, she would be the one to deliver the news!

I was young and green, but nothing about this felt right for the employee losing his job. I tried to picture myself walking into a room while my manager nervously called a stranger and put them on speaker. It felt like something out of a Kafka novel.

HR had better options if the goal was “helping” me.

  1. Roleplay with me.  She plays the role of Al and I practice the termination meeting while she throws curveballs, based on her experience in situations like this.
  2. Find a local manager who could attend the meeting.  You could throw a baseball in any direction at GE and hit an HR Manager.  She could have contacted a local peer and asked that they pinch-hit for her.
  3. Get on an airplane and show up.  If this was so important that she needed to be involved, it was important enough for her to show up.

This wasn’t about “helping” me, it was about ego and flexing a department’s muscle.

Due to her schedule and several other factors, we set a date one month out. Except, I had no intention of her plan coming to fruition. It was my decision to fire Al and I was not going to shrink while a stranger on a conference call gave him the bad news. I wasn’t sure how, but it was not going to follow the path this HR bureaucrat had prescribed.

Thankfully, I fired a “warning shot” in Al’s direction one month prior.  Regardless of how this ended, I felt comfortable that it would not be a surprise for Al.

The Importance Of A Warning Shot

The Persian Gulf has long been a tinder box of international tension. Nearly one-third of all seaborne crude oil passes through the relatively narrow Strait of Hormuz, which runs between Oman and Iran.

This is a sensitive area of the world as Iran has the capability of shutting down oil delivery that would materially impact Saudi Arabia, The United States and most of the free world. Add in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and this territory becomes a place where discretion is critical to world peace.

In July of 2017, the U.S. Navy patrol ship known as the U.S.S. Thunderbird was on patrol in the Persian Gulf. An Iranian ship approached at high speed and the Navy ship responded with every friendly warning at its disposal, including radio communications, flares and whistle blasts. The Iranian ship continued its dangerous course undeterred.

Running out of time and looking to avoid a direct hit that could escalate to an international crisis, the U.S. captain attempted one final move before engaging with the Iranian ship. The U.S.S. Thunderbolt fired several warning shots in the direction of the Iranian ship which promptly got its attention. The Iranian ship quickly halted its approach and set off on a new course.

During the 18th century, a “shot across the bow” was a nautical term for a warning shot.  According to the law of the sea, a ship thus hailed had to change course, fly her flag, surrender or engage. Warning shots are still used by militaries and police as an intentionally harmless caution with intent to direct compliance.

As an analogy, a “shot across the bow” can describe a conversation with an employee as a last warning before you take aggressive measures. Most botched attempts at firing employees are a result of attempting a direct hit without initiating enough fair warning. In short, the leader did not set honest and accurate expectations.

As a manager, the purpose of a warning shot is to convince your employee to change course or surrender.

How To Fire A Warning Shot Toward A Failing Employee

One month earlier, I had my most direct conversation to date with Al.  It wasn’t perfect but it was genuine and honest. If you are treating someone with respect, the last thing you want to do is sound robotic.

“Al, we need to talk about your performance.  We keep having the same conversation and nothing is changing.”

Notice how the onus is squarely on Al in this conversation. I do not say, “we have not made enough progress.” I make it clear that this is a repeating scenario.

“If you continue selling at this pace, we cannot afford to keep a fourth sales rep in Ohio.  We have opportunities across the region to sell more with new positions.”

At this point in time, I still wasn’t sure this was an option but knew well enough that I wouldn’t be allowed to simply sit by idly and do nothing.

“Do you understand what I am trying to tell you?”

This line, for whatever reason, was hard for me to say. To this point, he was nodding and agreeing with my assessment that he needed to improve.  By asking that question so directly, it forced Al to translate what I was clumsily trying to tell him – that his job was in jeopardy.

“Listen Ian, I’ve been with this company long enough to know that if I can’t hit my quota, the company will find someone who can.”

This was a big relief to me and let me know that I had done a good enough job of alerting him of the serious nature of his performance.  He wasn’t defensive and didn’t waste effort arguing about the fairness of his situation.  I moved on to what measurable changes I needed to see.

“Your new sales this year are less than half of what your peers sold.  In the next 60 days, I need to see new accounts, leads and quotes increase three-fold.”

This sent a message that incremental improvement would not do the trick. His performance was so poor that slight progress was still failing by a wide margin.  I was asking for a complete 180-degree turnaround.

“Do you believe you can improve to the level I am asking for?”

The word “believe” is important during this discussion.  If they don’t believe they can improve, the conversation can head toward an exit plan.  By asking this, you force out all of the excuses the employee has in their head.  Al had a great attitude and showed no interest in playing the victim.

“I know what I need to do.”

“Great.  I want you to put together a plan of how you will accomplish what I have asked for in the next 60 days. Email it to me by Wednesday and let’s discuss it together.  I’m here to help you with strategy but this needs to be your plan.”

One mistake that many managers make is creating the plan for the employee.  This is not your responsibility.  The manager lays out what needs to be accomplished and when.  “How” is the responsibility of the subordinate.

If you are going to ask them to completely turn around their performance, they should have autonomy in how they will accomplish this.  At this stage of the game, they need to own their actions.  You’ve worked alongside them for months without progress.  It is time that they own their results.

The one thing I did not do, and should have done, was ask Al if he was “interested” in persisting.  This question often sparks a different kind of conversation as it relates to motivation.  You are asking your subordinate if they have the stomach to keep battling.

You will be surprised by how many people will respond by asking about alternatives.  They know they can’t do the job you are asking for but don’t know how to say that.  Until you ask this question, they believe they have two choices.

  1. Get better quickly.
  2. Get fired.

What if the third choice was taking a step down or moving laterally to a position that better fit their strengths? Your struggling employee could be in a role that doesn’t match their strengths. In a large organization, you have more open positions and might find this person to be a great fit for a completely different role.

What if a third choice was a mutually beneficial exit plan?  With a mutual plan, the employee can control the narrative. They choose the date they leave (within reason) and spend their last weeks with the company looking for another job and helping with an orderly transition.

This third option is enticing to many who have already come to the conclusion that this job isn’t for them, but don’t know what they will do next.  How can they find a new job if they are working around the clock to improve?

My “shot across the bow” was enough but it could have been better.  At a minimum, it set up the difficult conversation I had coming.

Five Steps To Firing A “Shot Across The Bow”

  1. Be direct and specific in potential consequences.
  2. Be specific and objective in the outcomes that need to change.
  3. Be specific when those outcomes need to change.
  4. Ask the employee if they are interested in pursuing or if they would like to work out a mutually beneficial exit plan.
  5. Ask the employee for their plan on how they will turn it around.

Saying Goodbye With Dignity

Al was now 30 days into his window and wasn’t making progress.  I had no plans to let a faceless HR Manager do the deed via conference call.  I missed the chance upfront but decided to give Al a chance to surrender and scheduled a meeting with him.

“Al, I probably don’t need to tell you this isn’t working.  Your results haven’t changed and I need to be direct with you.  I don’t think this position is good for your strengths. I want to give you some control over how this ends.”

“Are you telling me that this decision is made?”

Nervous about how HR would view this backroom conversation, I hesitated.  Do I give him an honest answer or offer up more corporate-speak that hints of bad news without saying anything?  I took a chance.

“Al, we’re leaning toward eliminating your position and your results have done nothing to change that decision.  If you give me your notice, I can work with you on your end date and offer up the freedom to look for another job while you still have employment.  This will make it easier for you in a job search.”

“Can I give my notice for 30 days from now?”

This was just about the time I was planning to meet with Al with the HR manager on the phone.  I quickly agreed to that date and Al admitted that he was expecting to be fired that day, so 30 extra days was a relief.  He had plenty of time to think about this after our first meeting.

The chances of a mutually agreed-upon exit rise with time if you handle the warning shot properly.  Once someone gets over the shock and measures the situation, the thought of this third option becomes more appealing with every day that passes.

Al brought me his resignation letter the next day, with his last effective day listed one month away.  My boss and the HR manager were elated, even if they thought it was just good luck.  This was the cleanest exit we could hope for and by accepting Al’s resignation, we could post the open Minnesota position immediately.

We told the staff that Al decided to pursue an opportunity elsewhere which helped him keep his dignity.  This was easier to deliver given that we allowed Al to stay for 30 more days and the staff even threw him a party.  He helped us transition and found a new position with a competitor before his last day arrived.

Too many companies get caught up in red tape and paperwork when a termination is imminent.  They do this to protect the company from legal recourse, overwhelming people with obscenely long performance improvement plans.

New managers get so wrapped up in reading the language in these lifeless documents, that they forget about the human element.  You are talking to another adult who will respond much better if you are real.

When dealing with the prospect of termination, the first words from most managers is “How does the paperwork look?”  This is a backward mindset.  What leaders should think about is the mindset of the failing employee.

  • Do they know they are failing?
  • Do they know that time is running out?
  • Do they know what their options are?
  • Have we fired an effective warning shot?

The less personal you make an exit, the more defensive an employee becomes.  Throwing long performance improvement plans in front of someone forces them to become defensive.  This is the opposite reaction you are looking for.

Talk to people like adults and level with them on the reality of the situation.

  • How would you want your manager to address you if your roles were reversed?
  • Would you want someone reading legal garbage?
  • Would you want someone to have a real conversation with you?

Parting ways is uncomfortable on both manager and employee. Following the right steps can help both parties move on to better things.

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