A reader from Ohio asks:
“I am struggling with the question of firing a family member. In a moment of weakness last year, I hired my brother. I didn’t know he was such a screw up. He comes in late and drops the ball a lot, causing problems with customers. Then he blames it on someone else. I noticed my other employees starting to pick up his bad habits. My mother always takes his side and I know she will do so here, but I don’t know what else to do. Should I fire him?”
– Andrea from Dover, Ohio
That is an important question, Andrea. There’s no easy way to terminate any employee, much less your own brother. But sometimes it has to be done.
Firing a Family Member … If You Have To
It’s always best to try to work things out first. Do everything you can to avoid termination, because it can really mess up family dynamics. The impact can be lifelong.
Before you get to firing, you need a staged approach. First try to get improvement. Don’t rush into termination as the first step. Give your family member an opportunity to improve.
Here are our best tips when it comes to firing a family member — if you have to go that route.
1. First Talk With Your Family Member
Start by talking with your brother. Before firing a family member — or anyone — it’s important to fully hear the other side.
As managers and business owners we sometimes assume we have all the facts. We also tend to think that the situation should be obvious to the employee.
But in real life, things are rarely that clear.
At this stage you want a back and forth exchange. Make your points, but also get his side of things. Here’s how to do it:
- Talk face to face, in person. This is not something to do in email or over the phone or via texts.
- Maintain confidentiality. Hold your discussion some place others can’t overhear. Do not discuss his performance issues with your mother or try to line up other relatives on your side. He deserves confidentiality as much as any employee.
- Be professional and friendly, perhaps offering a beverage. Reinforce how glad you are to have him work here, or some other positive message. Smile.
- Hold a conversation, not a confrontation. Listen more than you talk. Keep an open mind. Build rapport.
- Keep it unemotional. Tamp down your feelings. Stay low key. No arguing. No yelling.
Start with an Explanation
Explain what you are observing. Then give him a chance to speak.
There are good reasons to hear him out.
Your brother may have extenuating circumstances. He may have contributed and accomplished more than you realize.
For example, he may be coming in late, but what if he has been working at home on a special initiative? You might not know that unless you give him a chance to explain.
Or he may have achieved some important goals, but you have overlooked those because you’re so unhappy with a few negative issues. The negative is preventing you from balancing out the positive aspects of his performance.
Or what if he has temporary transportation issues? Perhaps you can help him solve those.
The point is, the conversation may change your mind about firing this family member.
Pro Tip: If you don’t trust yourself to hold an unemotional conversation, try asking your brother to fill out a self-evaluation of his performance before you meet. Use that document for a structured way to address performance issues.
2. Be a Good Coach Who Understands Human Nature
Think “coaching” rather than “firing” in the early stages.
Let’s do a brief role play for how you might address the tardiness issue, both the wrong way and the right way:
The Wrong Way:
“You’re late all the time! I’m sick and tired of your laziness. I don’t want to hear any excuses. If you are late one more time I’m going to fire you!”
What’s wrong with the above scenario?
Several things. You already have your mind made up. It doesn’t sound as if you want to hear his side or give him a chance to explain. You sound like you WANT to fire this family member, not help him understand how to improve. There’s no attempt to be persuasive or help him see your point of view. Overall it’s a very emotional and confrontational approach. It will not end well.
The Right Way:
“I really am glad to have you working here. But I notice you’ve been late 3 times in the past week, sometimes by more than an hour. Is there a particular reason? [Give him an opportunity to talk. Hear him out and discuss.] It’s important for you to show up for work on time, because customers are waiting. Plus, all the employees look to you. They think if you are doing it, it must be okay for them to come in late. Or they think I’m showing favoritism. I’m afraid that pretty soon everyone will start arriving late. And then the whole business suffers. Will you help me out and lead by example, and try to be on time?”
Notice the differences in this second scenario?
You started out reinforcing the positive. He has the opportunity to respond and knows you are open to listening. You explained yourself calmly giving good business reasons, without ultimatums. Things didn’t become emotional. You stated your expectations going forward. He’s been given the feeling you want him to be successful. And you put him in a position of power — noting how he can choose to be a leader of others.
Pro Tip: Make a note of when you held the discussion and what you discussed. Then if performance issues continue, you can remind him about the discussion. You will also have documentation to back up your decision.
3. Provide An Opportunity To Correct Poor Performance
Always give an opportunity to correct performance within a specific time frame, before moving ahead with firing a family member.
A typical remedial period is 90 days, but it could be 30, 60 or 120 days.
The point is, give some time for improvement. It’s only fair.
You see, it’s not uncommon for poor performers to seem blindsided by a critique of their performance. Some employees express dismay — even disbelief! Some will say they had no idea they weren’t performing up to expectations.
Do They Understand the Problem?
Now, it’s possible they know they are not doing a good job and are just playing you for sympathy.
But it’s also possible they do not understand your expectations.
Here’s an example: let’s say an employee is spending all of his time on project B and thinking he’s doing a great job. But project A is the urgent priority and so you are unhappy by the lack of progress on it. A frank discussion can realign priorities.
Or perhaps the employee is not doing things the way you want them done, or not performing up to your standards. Sometimes employees will measure performance differently from the way you do. State your expectations. Tell him what you consider to be acceptable performance. Don’t assume he knows.
Pro tip: Always be specific. Give examples.
- Example 1: “You handled XYZ that way. I would like you to handle it this way instead.”
- Example 2: “It should take less than15 minutes to enter a transaction into the database, but it seems to take you much longer. I have a suggestion that will help you speed things up. I’ve noticed you have a lot of interruptions with your phone and texting, and that probably makes it hard to concentrate. Limit the texting and calls to your break time (unless it’s an emergency). Take one break per morning and one per afternoon. You’ll be able to focus better.”
4. Give Positive Reinforcement
Dealing with performance issues should not be all about the negatives. In fact, positive feedback and proactive coaching are more important than negative.
After holding the discussion with your brother, be sure to provide positive feedback for his work while you give him an opportunity to improve.
Some experts suggest a 3-to-1 or even a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. Positive feedback will boost an employee’s confidence.
Go out of your way to give praise.
Give him reasons to feel good about how he’s doing. Let him know you appreciate his efforts.
Pro Tip: Always give feedback immediately when you see something well done.
5. Play to His Strengths
Here’s another possibility. If you find he isn’t up to the job duties, consider adjusting his role to suit him better.
Performance issues sometimes are due to a mismatch between skills and the job requirements. In other words, perhaps he’s not in the right role for his strengths and weaknesses. Remember, it’s hard to fit a square peg into a round hole.
If might be possible to assign him more responsibilities for the things he’s good at. And move him away from areas where he is weak.
The ability to tailor job duties is one of the advantages of owning a small business. It’s not always possible to tailor a job in a business that is very small. But if you can do it it’s worth a try.
When All Else Fails: How to Fire a Family Member
If after 90 days, or whatever remedial period you choose, you don’t see enough improvement, what do you do? You’ve tried your best, but see insufficient improvement.
In that case, you may have no choice but to fire the family member.
Take decisive action. Don’t procrastinate or stew over it. Accept the inevitable: you’re going to have to proceed to firing a family member. Best practice is to cut the cord immediately.
Pro Tip: Handle it as you would any other termination. Call him in for a private meeting. State your decision and that it’s final. Keep your meeting short. Indicate that you will pay some amount of severance.
For more, see our article: How to Fire an Employee.
It’s not going to be pretty. It will forever affect your relationship with your brother. And it may well affect other family relationships, particularly if people take sides. That’s why you should try to avoid terminating a family member if at all possible.
But taking no action could be worse. Poor performers are stressful on everyone in an organization. They can destroy morale and hurt customer relationships. So it’s best to get it over with, if you decide you must do it.
All answers to reader questions come from the Small Business Trends Editorial Board, with more than 50 years of combined business experience. If you would like to submit a question, please submit it here.