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A Little Pain Now Or a Lot of Pain Later (A Note to the Sales Manager)

It’s difficult to fire people. It’s difficult to do something that you know is going to cause another human being pain. Which is why you should do everything in your power to make certain it is truly your last resort. And you should make sure no one is ever surprised that they are being let go.

All that said, it is still sometimes necessary to fire people. But a little pain now is better than a lot of pain for a long time into your future.

Why It’s Painful for You

It’s uncomfortable to let people go. You know that firing them is going to hurt them. Their feelings are going to be hurt. They are going to be embarrassed and their pride will be damaged. They have to tell their friends and family that they lost their job. More still, they are faced with a new financial problem.

All of these factors make it tough to release someone. And because all of these factors are true, it should be difficult. But these factors cannot be allowed to prevent you from doing what you know must be done. Doing so may be unpleasant, but not doing so will be more unpleasant.

You Are Responsible

You have a responsibility to your organization.

You have the responsibility for producing financial results, and you are responsible for ensuring that you use your budget to produce those result. That means you can’t afford to carry people that aren’t producing. Not releasing an employee that should be fired for not producing results means you will later deal with the unpleasantness of missing your goals or perhaps even failing your clients.

You also have a duty to the rest of the people on your team. You put their results and their rewards at risk by allowing some people to not produce. By allowing someone that isn’t producing to remain on your team, you put the results of the rest of the team at risk. And you send them the signal that it is acceptable to not produce.

You also have a duty that I believe is greatly underappreciated. That is the duty to protect your culture from anything or anyone that would destroy it. Negative people are sometimes the easiest people to remove from your team because they are so negative. You can’t wait to get rid of them. At the same time, they can also be the most difficult people to release because you know that you are going to have to deal with their nastiness and their negativity.

You have another responsibility too. Jack Welch used to make the case that allowing an underperformer to stay employed is to do them a terrible disservice. By carrying them year after year, the underperformer does nothing to prepare for being released. They may not even be aware of their poor performance. Then, when business gets tough and you are required to make the hard calls, they are fired without warning. And they are completely unprepared.

It is unfair. And you have a duty to do better.

This Isn’t the Apprentice

Donald Trump makes firing people look easy. Of course, he is firing celebrities that are going back to their lives after being removed from a game show. I doubt that even Trump would be so callous and matter of fact in real life (even though I am certain he wouldn’t disagree with much that I have written here).

It’s difficult to fire people. But it is a necessary part of leading a team. It’s unpleasant. But it’s more unpleasant to allow the person to continue in a role in which they are failing.


Have you ever been fired? How long before you were released did you know things weren’t going well?

What do you owe underperformers before you release them?

Do you treat those that you have to release like you would want one of your loved ones to be treated?

What are the options you should explore before firing someone?

Have you ever carried an employee for longer than you should have? Was it more unpleasant to keep them than it would have been to live through the short pain of releasing them?

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  • Brad Farris

    This is such an important topic. The leader is always responsible for the performance of the team and the longer a non-performer is allowed to stay on board the more damaging it is to the team and the leader’s performance. 

    I’m also glad you talked about it from the employee’s perspective. When you are a poor performer on a team it feels terrible. No one wants to be in that position. Let them go find a place where they can soar.

    Thanks again for dealing with this tough issue.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Brad. 

      I do believe that there is someplace for everyone, a place where they can make their greatest contribution and enjoy their greatest success. Not everyone is in that position now, and it does make them feel terrible. 

      It is a tough issue for everyone involved, and we should treat is such. But we shouldn’t avoid it. That doesn’t help anybody. 

  • AmyMccTobin

    As a Sales Manager I felt it was my DUTY to make sure that no one I fired was every surprised. Regular communications, clear goals WITH DEADLINES, yearly , honest reviews…. if those things are done properly, the employee cannot be surprised. I always put my Sales Reps on Probation first… only one out of 10 every made it back from that. Probation came after many months of working closely with them.nnStill, it was always a horrible thing to do. But to me, the beauty of Sales is that numbers don’t lie; it is the ULTIMATE meritocracy. Those who achieve are rewarded. Lots of money is made if you’re good… and everyone at the company depends on great salespeople to keep their own jobs. It’s a sad part of business, but you can still leave the employee with their dignity.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I can’t say it any better than you did here, Amy: “you can still leave the employee with their dignity!” They don’t have to leave without that intact! 

      • AmyMccTobin

        You know, other than Self Employment, being a VP/Sales was my favorite job.  I was fair.  I saw myself as a Coach rather than a boss, but a Coach with GM Power.  We did great things together. I had to fire people too, but I never, ever fired someone who didn’t deserve it.  That sounds harsh, but it was absolutely for the reasons you described: I owed it to the company that paid my salary, and the salary of every other employee, to ensure that our front line of revenue producers were the very best. Otherwise the whole ship would sink… it was the same reason that I defended them to the ends of the earth… the “inside” people didn’t always understand the kind of pressure those reps were under. Every. Single. Day.