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Midnight Text: How do I Decide if I Should Fire an Early Employee?

Alexis Clarfield-Henry
Apr 18, 2023
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min read

At Forum Ventures, we pride ourselves on really getting to know the founders we invest in, and creating (what sometimes is the only) space for them to drop their front and be vulnerable. As a result, we often get texts or calls in the middle of the night from our portfolio founders with urgent, confidential, and even sometimes what they feel are “embarrassing” questions. This series chronicles example founder texts and how we answer them.

Unfortunately, building your early team (and getting it right) is one of the hardest, yet most important, things you will do to set you up for success. You need to be aware of two key things before you can choose between fire vs. coach: 

1. Team building is a culture issue: Your first 10 core team members are absolutely crucial to setting up the right company culture because these people will end up becoming de-facto leaders/influencers in your organization. As a result, they will set the tone and their ways of collaborating, their work ethic, and the quality of their work will waterfall into the rest of your future team. 

2. Team building is a product issue: Every team member is capable of causing either progress or friction. Your job as a founder is to ensure friction is mitigated (with the goal to eliminate it) so that you’re creating an environment where every team member can contribute positive momentum to product development and corresponding go-to market plans.

When to coach vs. let go

Given the importance of the early core team, you can’t immediately let people go for any perceived problems. It can easily send the signal to other employees that they might also be let go at any given moment. 

On the flip side, you don’t want to delay it too long if someone is hindering collaboration, producing mediocre work, or creating a toxic environment. This too will send a signal to other employees that they can act in a similar toxic or laissez faire manner and safely stay at the company. 

Here’s a quick guide on when to spend time coaching someone versus when it’s time to cut them loose.

Coach when culture is there but skills are not: If someone is a great culture fit and is clearly trying, you have a duty to coach them. This is as much helping the individual as it is sending a powerful message that you believe in the importance of your people, culture, feedback and progression. 

The caveat here is if someone is too behind on a critical skill to be valuable to the company. In this case, after you’ve spent some time with them and done what you can to set them up for success, and they’re still not delivering, you should let them go. Use your network to try to rehome them at a company and in a role that’s more suited to their existing skill set. 

Fire when attitudes get toxic, regardless of skill: Even if someone is talented, a crappy attitude will poison your culture and make recruiting more difficult in the future. It’s as simple as that. 

When it comes to identifying whether someone is toxic, assess the person against the company’s vision, values, and your intuition. Talk to your other trusted team members and get their feedback. Monitor how this person interacts with others. Then, make a decision quickly. This will send the message to the rest of your team that (A) you have their back, and (B) you’re serious about creating an environment of respect and success. It’s worth noting I’ve never had a founder regret letting someone go… I’ve only seen them regret keeping a toxic person around too long.

It’s never an easy choice

Unfortunately, as the leader of a business you will need to make tough decisions, and that extends to your people. You don’t have the luxury of people holding you back just because you are worried about letting them go. 

If you’ve got a great culture fit who needs a boost, be the kind (but honest) coach they need. But if that person has miles to go or has a horrible attitude, act swiftly. You can’t afford to wait. 

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