Top 5 Reasons To Fire A Top Sales Performer

Tony Hughes


I'm not a fan of 'stack ranking' which is the practice of creating a performance table and firing the bottom 10% to 15% every year. It's usually carried out summarily on a quarterly basis targeting the bottom 3-5% of sales non-performers. Think, Lord Of The Flies meets Celebrity Apprentice, for the right image in your mind.

Numbers never lie but numbers never tell the whole story either... real leaders dig deep and uncover root cause before firing-up the flame thrower. Sales performance is a partnership between the sales person, their manager and the company providing intrinsic value in the market offering. Getting up to speed takes time and sales success can be a complex equation.

Yet the biggest mistake I consistently made when leading companies and sales teams was holding on to the wrong people for too long. I deluded myself into thinking that my inaction was driven by good values (be patient and continue to help) but in hindsight, maybe my weakness was driven by fear. We all worry that if we fire sales people, then we won't have the resources to go get the revenue so desperately needed. We are almost always desperate because head office piles quota uplift upon quota uplift in their relentless pursuit of shareholder value! They compound the problem by fiddling while Rome burns withholding headcount approvals and nitpicking over recruitment fees. Mixed signals from on high seem commonplace.

Today I work with sales leaders and CEOs and I'm constantly exhorting them to make the tough decisions concerning their teams. Retaining the wrong people always turns caustic but before that, they consume endless amounts of energy and time. Jim Collins agrees with me and if you want proof, read his classic leadership tome, Good to Great. It's one of the first things that he nails: Get the wrong people off the bus and don't worry about having some empty seats... the right people will get on the bus and fill them.

At the end of this article I'll give you my 'Rule of 24' for deciding who needs to go and who should stay, but now here are my top 5 egregious traits that should cause you to target a sales person for negative attention.

1. Phil The Corporate Psychopath: Life is way too short to work with nasty politically motivated whack-jobs who spend most of their day plotting and scheming how to 'do people over' who are just trying to do their jobs. Their twisted evolutionary 'survival of the nastiest' ethos destroys a culture and leaves a trail of destruction. Yet all this is usually veiled behind a charming facade. The warning signs are that they're a control freak, emotionally manipulative narcissist who happily seeks to burn you out. They think nothing of telling lies and are masterful at managing-up, climbing the corporate ladder by using the knives they've wedged in the backs of others as their foot-holds. They have a very nasty side when challenged and are uber-competitive, casually stealing other peoples ideas and taking the credit, while masterfully positioning others for the fall when something they're working on goes badly.

If you work for one of these people, forget talking to the Human Remains department, just go find another job and leave as soon as you can. If one of these people works for you, regardless of their apparent high performance, manage them out as fast as you can. Nasty people don't belong in your team.

2. Mike The Network Marketer: Your customers belong to you, not the sales person. The employment contract they signed states it clearly and every relationship they build while on your dime is a corporate asset. Yes, people build personal relationships with clients, and customers sometimes choose to follow sales people when they move... that's their right. But for a sales person to be leaning on your customers to join their side business is wrong, plain and simple!

Back in the late 1980s I was in the Amway business for 6 years and did pretty well, earning the equivalent of an annual salary on the side and was front-line to one of the biggest couples globally today. But I built my network of well over 1,000 down-line without compromising my employer or my integrity. While I was at my MLM peak and a sales manager in the corporate world, I fired a sales person who worked for me when his customer complained about being invited under false pretenses for dinner only to be pitched 'the plan'. We had a clear understanding that neither of us would engage in this behavior... it was a sacrosanct rule.... fired.

3. Side Deal Sam The Slippery Snake: Overt corruption can bring a business to its knees, especially side agreement letters hidden in the drawer or commitments that no-one wants the auditors to see; these end careers and for good reason. People who sign business with zombie skeletons hiding in the closet have no place; neither do sales people who have corrupt arrangements with resellers or 'partners'. Transparency in dealings is essential. You cannot afford to be associated with an employee doing dodgy deals. Dishonest people must be terminated.

Here's a law of life - your reputation is everything. Integrity is a prerequisite for sustained success but 'integrity' goes beyond mere honesty. It is about being a person of your word and being someone who does everything possible to honor commitments. No weasel words, no wriggling out of what has been promised. No commitments that cannot be fulfilled. Make no mistake, being mercurial or duplicitous always comes home to fester.

4. Lester The Liar: Honesty is the foundation on which every successful career is built, so if trust has been broken, the person's career is effectively over. Lying through omission, cheating on expenses, lying about whether you're working or not, misleading people about the relationships you have or the meetings that have occurred... it's the kiss of death. Without trust at every level, there is nothing. If you don't trust your employee, don't keep them around.

5. Harry The Sexual Harasser: You have an obligation to protect everyone in your employment and also your customers. Slimy sexual predators have no place in your employ, and neither do bigots and racists. Your own team culture is a sub-set of the corporate values so be very clear about what you stand for. No preachy holier than thou Pollyanna persona... just you being the real deal about standing for what is right. Understand people's real values and beliefs... it is a real predictor of behavior.

I promised you that I would provide my framework for deciding who belongs in your team and who should go. Here it is: The Rule of 24.

Bonus list... not worthy of firing someone but notable mention:

Virgil The Victim: The very best sales people find a way to be successful despite their environment. They find a way to create success. Victims endlessly drain energy, time and resources. Everyone needs to be resourceful and show initiative.

Nelly The Nasty Gossip: Negativity is poison and gossip is the cancer of the workplace. Yet it's amazing how many nasty gossips package their toxin in pretty packages. 'I'm really concerned about...' If people are concerned, challenge them about what they are going to do to help.

Neville The Negative Naysayer: 'I don't want to be negative but... ' And then they go on to be wrist-slashingly negative. You've heard it many times. People with negative attitudes bring people around them down. Sales is difficult enough without attempting it with a defeatist attitude.

Bill The Empty Suit: Social selling means that we sell naked. If the emperor has no clothes then the whole world will know... all they have to do is look at the profile in LinkedIn or run a basic Google search. A person's social proximity reveals much about the company they keep. Does their social profile show substance and insight; and can they carry a conversation with some gravitas?

Liam The Luddite: Everyone in sales today must be technology savvy. This includes being able to leverage social platforms and conduct online research. Success in selling requires people to create mash-ups on methodology and technology to listen, engage, build brand, collaborate and sell effectively.

Sid the sloth: Work ethic is an essential element of sustained, predictable success. Anyone who does not work hard should have a big question mark above them. There is no room for sloppy in highly competitive markets. As the manager of a sloppy employee, you will inevitably be dragged into rewriting their proposals and salvaging your own brand.

Now it's over to you. What are the traits you see that destroy careers, or worst still, warrant dismissal?


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at

Main image photo by Flickr: Mike Poresky


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