Chris Dixon on firing people

It is an unfortunate fact of life that hiring is an inexact science and mistakes will get made, even if the recruitment process is best in class and executed with diligence. It is simply impossible to know for sure how people will work out until you have been working with them for a while. On top of that companies change as they grow and there are some people who are great at the early stages but aren’t so good when process and discipline become important.

So even the best startups and founders will most likely have to fire someone. In two of my recent investments the short company history up to the Series A included parting company with a senior member of the management team and I took that as a positive. Firing someone senior in the early stages of a company’s life is espescially difficult and I was pleased to see the founders in question had the courage and discipline to take a hard decision.

I’m writing all this because I’ve just read an excellent post on the topic of firing people from Chis Dixon, a prominent US entrepreneur and angel investor. It’s so good I’m going to quote it in full:

Firing is awful. You can try to avoid it, but even the most selective founders make serious mistakes. Here are a few things I’ve observed about firing:

1) The good people bounce up, the bad ones bounce down. I was told this by my boss once when he was firing one of my friends. At the time, I thought this just made him feel better about himself. Over time, I’ve seen the wisdom in what he said. Some people who get fired react by fixing their weaknesses. Others spiral down.

2) Do it early. If you think you’re going to fire someone over the next six months, you probably will. Don’t wait too long. Too many founders do. It’s better for management and employees if it happens fast.

3) It’s awful. You’re in control of a situation that will meaningfully hurt someone. It’s an awful place to be. The fired person will go home and tell his/her family about how terrible it was. It was your fault. Perhaps your mismanagement caused it. Who knows. You’ll question it, and perhaps you are right to do so.

4) The other choice is firing everyone. You’re the founder of the company. If you run out of money, you’re forced to fire everyone. If you don’t fire the bad employees, you risk everyone else’s jobs. It’s an impossible situation.

5) The feeling is more likely to be mutual than you think. Most of the time, the person getting fired was already about to quit. The antipathy you feel is likely reciprocated. It’s surprising how often this happens and management doesn’t see it coming.

It would be great if startups were all about growth, hiring, and success. But the reality is that founding a company is a brutal job and lots of the pain gets passed down to employees. Creative destruction sounds nice in textbooks, but in the real world it means telling friends to go home, stop getting paid, and find new jobs.

 I also want to bring out two of the comments:

If you’re doing your job firing someone should never come as a surprise to them. I’ve fired pleanty of people over the past 20 years and the vast majority are still valued contacts and many are even friends. Being proactive mitigates 90% of the issues of firing someone but that makes it no less difficult to do…particularly the first time you do it!

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The amount of build-up it usually requires for you to even approach the subject of firing someone prevents you from making a mistake.Firing someone sucks. You don’t fire people “on the bubble” in your mind. You fire people as a last resort.

This last comment is important. Firing people is a last resort. The right thing to do for the individual and the company is always going to be to try and find a way to make things work. In some cases it won’t be possible and then the right thing to do is to quickly recognise when that is the case and take appropriate action.