Should A Servant Leader Ever Fire Someone? Yes! – And Here’s How & Why

While teaching leadership at Mount Royal University, my class had a great discussion about Servant Leadership and discipline.

Read about the myths of servant leadership

We explored one student’s situation: She has an employee who was good at her job but had a toxic and nasty attitude towards her employer, her co-workers and her work.

Sometimes, angry and negative people appear to do a good job, always at work, always on time. They are careful not to be too critical when supervisors or managers are around but are quick to spread rumours and try to supersede management at their discretion.

As we talked, I suggested that the employee was good at her tasks; but terrible at her job.

Leaders who struggle with effectiveness misconstrue servant leadership as never having to enforce a standard or discipline an employee. 

Servant Leaders maintain standards and team norms to maintain high employee engagement and, in turn, does not allow mediocrity. 

By allowing this miserable person to carry on without consequences creates mediocracy throughout your team.


Can You Fire a Poisonous Employee? 

The short answer is yes.

But this is a time to get help.

You needed to get your boss and HR team involved. There are legal, labour-relations and possible human rights risks to the whole organization by mishandling firing someone. So be careful.

More importantly, the ‘problem’ employee needs to be treated fairly and with respect.

There is a possibility they have never been called out on their behaviour. Maybe, just maybe, with the right coaching, mentoring and good performance management you can help turn this person around.

To be honest, the odds of rescuing the employee are poor, but they may deserve the opportunity to improve their performance.


Step One: What to Say When Sitting Down for a First Meeting

While you may have counselled the employee in passing (“Hey, I noticed you were very negative at that meeting”), this is the time for pointed and directed information.

It is possible that they don’t realize just how negatively they are coming across to co-workers, so ask questions and find out what they are thinking.

Some approaches work better than others, but using the model of Facts, Feelings and Future is useful when having awkward conversations.

Read about the 4 F’s

Try this script:

“I’ve noticed you are unhappy and speak quite negatively about your job and the other people who work here. For instance, I’ve noticed that while you’re always polite face to face, you’ll say negative things behind people’s backs.”

 “Part of your job is building good relationships with co-workers, and your behaviour undermines this. What can I do to help you in this area?

The question at the end will allow your employee to speak up and share their grievances, which, most likely they will have. Here’s the thing: Be compassionate.

 But at the end of all the sympathy and compassionate communication, you need to come to this: “Regardless, the behaviour is inappropriate in this office. We value your work, and we don’t want to lose you, but if you cannot pull this together, we will terminate your employment.”

Document the time, date, and content of the discussion. At this stage, you can present them with an official performance improvement plan document that details what is expected.


Step Two: Implement a Performance Management Plan with the Employee

You want to implement a Performance Management Plan that stresses progressive discipline.

Read about performance agreements and charters

This is where you follow a series of steps, with the idea that if the employee either improves or is terminated.


Step Three: Follow up

You should never expect instant perfection from an employee in the performance improvement process. After all, it takes an effort to change, and it took a long time to get here.

This is precisely the time when you must become a micro-manager. If you notice poor behaviour, correct it at the moment.

Read why micromanagement is a good thing

Regardless schedule a formal meeting every two-weeks during the performance management plan, if they are making significant progress, congratulate them. If they are not making progress, this is where the “progressive” part of progressive discipline kicks in.

Present them with a written warning. This should include details of the problems they need to resolve as well as the information that if their behaviour does not improve, your organization will suspend them and then terminate their employment.

Explain that this warning is being placed in their employee file. Ask them to sign to indicate that they have received this warning. They may object, saying that they disagree with what is written. You can explain that their signature doesn’t mean agreement, but rather that they received it.


Step Three: Termination

If the behaviour does not improve, it’s time to let your negative employee go.

You might be tempted to keep them on, understand that if you do not act, you will have no power over this employee ever again. They will know that they can do whatever they want to, and you won’t do much.

You may also have to provide some amount of severance – Get legal or HR advice. It is galling to pay a  problem employee on their way out the door. But remember the organization failed the person by misfiring or not managing them properly, and a small severance may show good-faith if the employee decides to take legal action.


Final Thoughts

If you say, “But I can’t afford to lose them,” think again.

Negative employees who gossip are damaging to your whole department. Your other employees are more likely to quit and are not as engaged as they would be if they were in a functional department.

The Servant Leader owes it to all employees to take care of this poisonous employee, which means firing them if they either refuse to or are unable or unwiling to change.

5 Leadership Actions That Will Drive A 7% Increase in Profit – And Who Doesn’t Want More Profit

Poor managerial behaviours negatively impact engagement, alignment, productivity, and retention.

Research has identified some important gaps between what people expect and what they experience when having work conversations with their immediate manager.

Poor managers cost your company money when:

  1. They don’t set clear goals with their people.
  2. They don’t align goals to the team, departmental, and organizational objectives.
  3. They don’t check in on progress.
  4. They don’t provide feedback.
  5. They don’t adjust their style based on the needs of the employee.
  6. They don’t listen.
  7. They don’t change (without training and support).


  1. They don’t set clear goals with their people.

About 70 percent of people want to have goal-setting conversations often or all the time, but only 36 percent do. When managers aren’t skilled in setting goals that are specific, trackable, relevant, attainable, and motivating, the result is multiple priorities, unclear action steps, and poor line of sight on how work contributes to larger objectives.

“All good performance begins with a laser-like focus on goals,” so Identify 3 to 5 key goals for each employee and make sure they are written down. Goals that are written down are 18 percent more likely to be achieved. Writing down the goal also makes it easier to review.

  1. They don’t align goals to the team, departmental, and organizational objectives.

Only 14 percent of organizations report that their employees have a good understanding of their company’s strategy and direction.

When people don’t know where their company is going, they can end up working on projects that are out of step with organizational objectives.

Make sure all team members are working on the highest-priority tasks. Ask managers to check in and review priorities with their people. Make sure the work is meaningful, on target, and contributing to overall organizational goals.

  1. They don’t check in on progress.

More than 73 percent of people want to have goal-review conversations often or all the time, but only 47 percent do. And 26 percent say they rarely or never discuss current goals and tasks.

What gets measured, gets managed.

Research conducted at Dominican University in California found that people who write down their goals, share them with someone else, and have regular weekly check-ins are 30 percent more likely to achieve those goals than people who do not.

  1. They don’t provide feedback.

Research shows that 67 percent of people want to have performance-feedback conversations often or all the time, but only 29 percent do. And 36 percent say they rarely or never receive performance feedback.

Without feedback, people don’t have a way to make course corrections or to know how they are doing until it’s late in the process. No one feels good when work has to be redone because of a lack of feedback along the way.

A few key attributes of good feedback are:

– Focus on observable behaviours, not personality traits. Feedback should be clear and directive and should focus on concrete actions.

– Keep a positive end goal in mind. Paint a positive picture of the desired outcome that gives people a vision to work toward.

– Offer to be an accountability partner. Change is hard. Offer to provide appropriate direction and support as needed.

  1. They don’t adjust their style based on the needs of the employee.

Nearly 54 percent of managers use the same style of leadership for all people in all situations regardless of whether a direct report is new to a task or already an expert. Half the time, this results in a manager either over supervising or under supervising.

The best managers tailor their management style to the needs of their employees. For example, if an employee is new to a task, a successful manager will use a highly directive style with clearly set goals and deadlines. If an employee is struggling with a task, the manager will use equal measures of direction and support. If the employee is an expert at a task, a manager will use a delegating style on the current assignment and focus instead on coming up with new challenges and future growth projects.

  1. They don’t listen.

When I ask clients and audience members the question “What is the biggest mistake leaders make when working with others?” 41 percent of the respondents identified inappropriate communication or poor listening.

Here’s a three-step model designed to help managers slow down and focus on what people are sharing.

– Explore—ask open-ended questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How do you think that will go?” or “What does that mean?”

– Acknowledge—respond with comments such as, “You must be feeling …” or “So, if I hear you correctly, what you’re saying is ….”

– Respond—now that you have a good understanding of the direct report’s point of view, you can carefully move forward with a possible response.

  1. They don’t change (without training and support).

A majority of new managers—60 percent—underperform or fail in their first assignments. Worse yet, as Harvard researcher Linda Hill has found, managerial habits developed by new managers often continue to hobble them for the rest of their careers.

With two million people stepping into their first managerial position each year, it’s critical to get people the training they need.

Unfortunately, research shows that most managers don’t receive formal training until they are ten years into their career!

I would suggest you rethink the traditional approach to who gets trained in the organization.

My suggestions?

  1. Don’t hold your best people back—in fact, don’t hold anyone back. Why not train everybody who desires it?
  2. Show everyone you value them and are willing to invest in their development.
  3. Adopt inclusive policies that identify and provide people with the training they need to build leadership bench strength, bring out the best in people, and create a strong work culture.

Better leadership practices have been positively associated with increased levels of engagement, alignment, productivity, and performance.

Research has identified that better leadership practices—if fully employed—could be worth as much as a 7 percent increase in profits!

For leadership development professionals, these seven areas provide an opportunity to take a more targeted approach to improve manager performance in each area.

Here are five ways to get started.

  1. Take a look at the overall design of your performance management process.

Conduct a quick internal assessment. Are managers following best practices in setting goals that are specific, motivating, attainable, relevant, and trackable? What percentage of employees have current goals written down?

Individuals and organizations achieve more when goals are identified, written down, and reviewed on a consistent basis.

Read more about performance mangement

  1. Double-check on goal alignment at the team and department level.

Make sure that all team members are working on highest-priority tasks. Ask managers to check in and review priorities with their people.

Make sure the work is meaningful, on target, and contributing to overall organizational goals. Efficiency improves when everyone is clear on goals and moving in the same direction.

Read more about goal alignment

  1. Take a second look at the amount of time your managers are spending with their people.

Everyone benefits from regular coaching and performance review.

Monitoring progress and providing feedback are two key ways for a manager to stay involved and partner with an employee to achieve goals. I suggest leaders meet with their direct reports at least twice a month to discuss progress toward goals and to address employee needs for direction and support.

Read more about time management

  1. Identify what individuals need to succeed in their high-priority tasks.

Managers need to adjust their leadership style to meet the needs of each person, depending on that person’s experience and confidence with the tasks they are assigned.

With proper levels of direction and support, people can move through stages of development and reach peak performance faster.

Surprisingly, without training only 1 percent of managers are skilled at identifying and being able to deliver all four styles when needed, whether directing, coaching, supporting, or delegating.

  1. Review your performance review process.

In many organizations, goals are set at the beginning of the year and not seen again until the review process at the end of the year.

I recommend that managers conduct a series of mini-reviews throughout the year—every 90 days is the recommended standard. This allows leaders to make midcourse corrections. It also eliminates surprises for direct reports and keeps the partnership between manager and direct report strong and vibrant.

 Read more about goals

Final Thoughts

A renewed focus on leadership development can have significant results on the performance of an organization. Research shows that when managers meet the needs of their people, organizations benefit through higher levels of discretionary effort, work performance, and intention to remain and collaborate more effectively.

How are the managers in your organization impacting your bottom line?

Give your leadership development process a review.

Great managers aren’t born—they’re trained.

Get started today by emailing me at or call me at + 1 403 701 3752