The Bottom 10%


In Monday’s post I talked about difficult conversations and I implied that one of “the most” difficult conversations is one in which you let someone go or are being let go.

The first time that I let someone go when I was a bank executive, the bank arranged for an outplacement counsellor to be present (I think most big companies use outplacement counsellors at many of the termination meetings). I was going on about how sick I felt going into this meeting and the counsellor said to me, “If letting someone go ever gets easy for you, then it is time to stop being a leader of people”. Years later, I still think of this comment and believe it to be true.

Having said that, what “advice” can I give about letting people go from your small business? There are 3 points I would make:



Just because it is hard, you must still do it. It is a big mistake in my mind to put your own distaste for making a tough call and having a tough meeting ahead of the greater good of the team. If you are letting someone go after fair warning (more below) then the person is in the bottom 10% of performance compared to the rest of the team – and therefore the top 90% of your team is carrying him or her. It is simple math. So realistically you can choose to side with the bottom 10% or  the top 25% of your team because it is usually the top quartile of performers who have enough bandwidth to not only do their own jobs well but also to “carry” the low performers that the business owner/manager is keeping around.


It is important to give people a chance to change. A meeting or two in which you let a person know that such-and-such is not working for you and that it needs to change in  specific ways is only fair. Ideally this meeting needs to happen in private so that the person knows it is serious and not just flippant commentary. And lastly, I suggest saying clearly in your feedback meetings that if the behaviour does not change, you will be meeting with them again to part ways i.e. if they can’t or won’t change, then the change will unfortunately be made by you.


I don’t want to get all lawyerly here but the rules about paying severance  are often misunderstood.

If you decide to let people go for any reason – whether there’s not enough work to do or their poor performance –  they are entitled to receive advance notice, presumably so they can seek new employment before their current job ends.  But most employers do not want terminated employees to stay on the job for a couple of weeks in case they do things out of anger or create a bad working environment so instead of working notice, the employer can choose to pay severance instead of (“in lieu of”) paying the salary for the person to work through the notice period.

On the other hand, if you suddenly catch an employee stealing or committing a violent act, for example, then you can let the person go without advance notice – as long as they know what they did and as long as that act is viewed as being something justifying termination “for cause”. If this is the case, then no severance is needed.

I hasten to add here that in all the years I have managed people- both at the bank and in my own business –  I have never let anyone go for cause i.e. without paying severance in lieu of working notice. Why? Because alleging that someone’s actions were “cause for termination” is fraught with the possibility of them saying that they did not steal or lie and overall, in my opinion,  the better, wiser path is to always pay severance. What this also means is that by paying notice  you are not required to provide a long convoluted reason for the termination.

In a termination meeting, the person being let go is probably not hearing anything after the words “letting you go” and I believe that the kindest thing to say is that they (or their role) is no longer a “fit” with the business and that although it has been a very difficult decision for you, you have decided to part ways with them.

If you have provided fair warning about changes that needed to happen,   with time, the person may realize that the decision was because of changes that needed to be made but weren’t.  Rambling on at the termination meeting – after you have already firmly decided to let the person go – will only cause further shock and pain to the terminated team member and may very well be remembered in an entirely different way the next day.

If you are pressed to give reasons for your decision, suggest that the person take a few days to think about things – let him or her know that a salary will continue to be paid for whatever the notice period is – and offer to have a coffee in a few days to talk then. As well, especially in cases where the person does in fact have lots of positive attributes, make clear that you will provide him or her with a reference letter whenever needed.



About the author

Jean Blacklock

Jean opened the popular Prairie Girl Bakery in the financial district of Toronto in 2011. She owned and operated the business until it closed in 2021 as a result of the pandemic’s impact on downtown Toronto. Read more about her background in commerce, law, and entrepreneurship here.

By Jean Blacklock


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