When You Have To Fire Someone You Like

When You Have To Fire Someone You Like

Did you know that the median nonprofit spends 73% of its budget on personnel?   Yep, three quarters of the cost of doing business is your people.  It’s another reason why having the right talent means more than having the right strategic plan or the right social media buzz.

Our experience is that nonprofit leaders (especially those in human services or education) are reluctant to do what’s best by cutting loose those employees who are underperforming.    Oh, there are the toxic employees, but we’re not talking about those.  It is the ones we like personally…the ones who work hard, get along with others, display all the emotional intelligence called for by management experts…..and yet they’re not getting the job done.

When I look back on my years in nonprofits, I can cite many choices I later came to regret….but I never regretted a single decision about firing someone. What I do regret is that I didn’t move that person out faster.

Firing someone is a painful and emotional experience. I hate it….hate, hate, hate. It’s a big blow to someone’s financial, emotional and personal life; but if you’re skittish about firing someone because of how it affects you, then you have no business being in a position of leadership. Double down on this if it’s a small nonprofit where you can afford no dead wood.

Raise your hand if you’ve made any one of these excuses for delaying the inevitable: “But he is so well liked,”, “I need every warm body I can get with the (fundraiser, annual appeal, conference, etc.) coming up,”, “Let’s send her to additional training and see what happens.”

Boards employ  similar rationales when dealing with a bad CEO. “We know we need a better leader but we couldn’t dismiss her because it would have raised questions in the community about our stability.” Later they regret not moving faster when they realize the community was well aware of the sacked executive’s dysfunction.

I’ve sat on boards making those excuses, and I’ve sat in the leader’s chair making those excuses. In each case, I look back and ask, “Why didn’t we do this earlier?”

Trust me when I tell you to listen to your gut instincts on this one. Things will not get better. Delaying will not make things better for you or for the rest of your staff.   If you know an employee is no longer a fit, your staff knows as well. They’re waiting for you to step up and pull the trigger.

An image of a nice clock with time to say goodbye

There is only one answer: do it now.

Firing somebody is painful, but it’s one of those decisions you need to make if your nonprofit is to survive. Stop squandering your budget on underperforming employees. Save the cash to get some new blood in the door. Inevitably, your other staff will be grateful that you made the move.

When you have to fire somebody, don’t beat around the bush concerning the reasons. Don’t obfuscate with banal excuses about budget cuts or a change in strategy. Act like an adult and tell them straight up why you made the decision. Do it without being a jerk. Constructive advice will go a long way to making the breakup beneficial to the person you’re letting go. Chances are your employee knows why it wasn’t working.

I agree with Bob Parson’s observation at “Go Daddy.” He adheres to the belief that when he has to fire someone, it is a failure of his management; either he hired the wrong person or he put them in the wrong position. The failure is his. And so with each termination comes a generous goodbye package. Compassionate separation goes a long way to in making the process more human.

In this two minute clip, Ken Schiller, co-founder of Texas restaurants “Rudy’s” and “Mighty Fine Burgers,” provides an excellent example of a well-liked and respected employee who was an excellent manager when the company was small but did not grow as the company grew.  Because Schiller really liked the guy and appreciated all he had done in the early days, there was severe hesitancy to make the move.  But Schiller learned from this and his advice to us all is Hire Slow, Fire Fast.


  1. Excellent advice.

  2. I can’t thank you enough for this. My board has been concerned about the director but no one brought up the possibility of termination. She has been loyal for more than two decades but was no longer a fit for new realities. Another board member shared this article with us and it initiated an honest conversation where we agreed to ask her to retire immediately. Since then, an interim CEO is in place while we go through a detailed search. Several staff have reached out to us thanking g the board sincerely they felt leaderless for years


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