business advice | Sep 25, 2018 |
How do I fire an employee?

Dear Sean:

I have been a designer for over 10 years and currently have a team of three aside from myself. I have had an increasingly difficult time with my oldest tenured employee (she has been with me for over seven years). Our clientele has grown as has our approach. I no longer need her to be the ultimate team player anymore as much as I need her to be the amazing conceptual designer and renderer that she is. She does not communicate well with the other members of my team and they are getting increasingly frustrated with her (and me). I need to let her go but I do not know how to—let alone nicely. Help!

Gun Shy

Dear Gun Shy,

The answer to your issue is in the old aphorism “horses for courses.”

As anyone interested in horse racing will tell you, horses have to be put in the best position for success. Some horses like to run on grass, some on dirt, some in the rain, some in the heat, some in the cold, some long distance, some short. Change the conditions and only the most unique and special horses can adapt. For the rest, they will not perform well at all for the very reason that what made them special no longer applies to the current conditions.

Develop empathy for your employee and an understanding of what needs to happen. She used to be your go-to person to handle anything you needed. When your firm was small, she was your get-it-done-at-all-costs employee. When you were building your business and bootstrapping to get to where you are today, you needed that scrappy, no-task-is-too-small attitude. However, your firm has grown out of that stage.

Now, you require professionalism, process and powerful communication to serve your clients well. You need employees who are fanatical about their own corner of the business, willing to let others be equally passionate about theirs. You no longer have a place for anyone who will not own theirs.

Your business has evolved away from your employee. I am certain you have exhausted every effort to bring her to your “new” way of doing business and it has been—to be blunt—pointless.

Because of your history and loyalty, I would suggest the following: Learn whose design business is running as yours used to be run, where her get-it-done sensibility will be honored. Go so far as to make introductions and explain why she would be fantastic for that firm. This might seem radical, maybe unorthodox, but it is a reflection that, in a certain sense, we are all in this together and you want the best for your employee. No doubt that your wish is for her to be rewarded for who she is and what she can bring to a firm. Your willingness to put her on the right “course” will speak volumes to current employees, perhaps clients, and definitely colleagues.

I would be remiss, though, if I did not also have a brief discussion about your culture, your current “course.” It is your job as the head of the business to determine what your business represents—and what your expectations are of those whom you task to make your design business all that it deserves to be. A wonderful resource for you to learn from (whether it is a culture you wish for your business or not) is Netflix’s Culture Deck, which began in 2009 and was revised in 2016.

If the course is uncertain, it won’t be clear who the best horses are. Clarity of purpose and culture will bring the best employees for the purpose and culture.


Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for EAL, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.

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