The Art of Firing an Employee


At some point, you’re going to have to make personnel changes among your staff — and not of the promotional variety. In my dealings with many Affiliate owners, this is a task that is surrounded by dread and paralysis.

Our business model purposely breeds a kinship community of individuals who genuinely care about each other. We have personal relationships with our customers and even more so with our staff. In fact, it’s commonplace for many Coaches to transition from customer to staff, which can present a host of issues when it comes time to end that relationship due to a lack of performance.

It’s the relationship aspect of our business that I believe creates disdain among Affiliate owners when it comes to terminating employment. Many owners may be in this position for the first time in their life and this is a foreign practice. Others who come from managerial backgrounds are not shy to fire, but they may fear the ramifications of “what if” as it relates to the fallout of terminating that employee.

I learned very early on in my career the delicate art of hiring and firing. The latter was a harder lesson to learn as I truly believed everyone had the potential to be great and put it on my shoulders to find the key to unlocking that potential.

And then I opened up my own gym and quickly realized my empathy toward employees needed to be served with a strong side of reality. I completely understood anyone could accidentally sleep through an alarm clock and sympathized when the gym was left messy. But then I instantly coupled that with the reality of the situation.

I’m running a business that provides a high-end service. If an employee cannot perform the duties necessary to providing this service, changes have to be made. I owe it to the members to hold my staff and myself to the highest standard possible. It’s what they deserve and it’s what will allow my business to withstand time.

While having to terminate an employee is never an enjoyable situation, here are some concepts for you to digest prior to having that difficult conversation.

Act Quickly

As a business owner, you are the “ripper of Band-Aids.” There are going to be thousands of decisions you need to make — all that could justify mentally going back and forth indefinitely — but as the leader, it is your duty to make the hard calls in a timely manner.

When you made the hire, you did so cause he/she looked good on paper and you had a “gut” feeling about how they would perform. As you’ve learned, you’re going to make personnel mistakes. It’s how you react and at what speed that matters.

Once you’ve had an honest talk with yourself regarding the staff member in question, it’s best to act as swiftly as possible. Not only is it the professional way to handle this situation, but it will allow you to get out of the HR department role and back to moving your business toward excellence.

Document Everything

Whether you’re a company of two or 200, all of your employees’ performance infringements should be documented on paper and discussed in person. Each employee should have a clear list of duties and responsibilities that they sign into at hire. Feel free to update this list at will, but make sure you document and have your staff sign off as the changes occur.

In the case that an employee is underperforming, document the infraction and have a meeting to discuss the issue. Many gym owners will tell me that this is “too corporate” for them since they only have a few part-time Coaches on staff, but don’t act like the business you currently are – act like the business you want to be.

Hopefully, you won’t have to reference these documents often, but in the case in which you’ve decided to terminate an employee, these are the judge and jury that make for a fair trial in land of HR.

Don’t Keep it a Secret  

A common fear among gym owners is the public relations nightmare that this scenario will bring among their membership. They fear members will react poorly to their executive decision and/or this disgruntled trainer will walk out with a slew of members to start his own gym down the street.

My answer to these questions typically is either “So what?” and “Good luck.”

As you should already know at this point, you can’t please every single one of your customers. Some of the choices you make in the pursuit of excellence will rub them the wrong way, and that’s OK. This is a reality of the situation and a pivotal comprehension for a successful gym owner.

Once you’ve accepted the fact this will ruffle some feathers, please don’t try and hide it. Instead, send an email to your members or post on your gym’s private social media page “Coach Tom will no longer be coaching at CrossFit ABC. We greatly appreciate his X months of hard work and dedication, and we wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors. At this point, we’re very excited to be promoting Tracy from intern to lead Coach. She has been working hard the past seven months as an intern, and we know she will fill the role with perfection.”

Remember, it’s a community and people will talk. So get over it. Hell, most of your members probably already know why Tom was fired.

The second half of this concern is only fatal if you’ve been asleep at the wheel as an owner. If anyone on your staff could up and leave, open their own gym and recreate a better offering than you, then you’re doing something wrong.

Now in the case that you’ve been an absentee owner and the Coach you’re about to fire has been running your gym — single-handedly to the point the members now associate your brand with him or her — then yeah, you literally just created your own competition and you need some counseling on this delicate situation. Otherwise, it’s not feasible this situation will play out with a devastating impact.

So remember, firing is one of the duties that comes with owning your own business. It’s not an ideal scenario, but if you know in your heart that this decision is one that will make your service better, then you’re already proving to yourself you’ve got what it takes to own a successful gym.

Stuart Brauer is a 15-year student of strength and conditioning, and he was fortunate to find CrossFit in 2006. Since then he's dedicated his life to building a fitness business simply based on the pursuit of excellence. From humble beginnings making three figures and running park workouts to owning a million dollar gym, he's now ventured into business consulting for gym owners looking to chase their dream. You can find his content on Facebook and Instagram @wtfgymtalk.

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