Taking the sting out of firing someone

Posted by on Sep 9, 2010 in Hiring & retention | 0 comments

While Donald Trump may issue these words with mock sadistic glee, most of us with a tad of compassion struggle with uttering the phrase, “You’re fired.” And it’s right that we should.

In the popular press, when we hear about firings, it’s usually from the perspective of the fired person rather than the boss. The person doing the firing is variably portrayed as the steely, callous automaton, the bad guy or sometimes the cruel, sadistic, power-hungry heavy.

In truth, most bosses are none of these things. They agonize over the decision to fire someone, and even after making that decision, they suffer bouts of guilt, depression, sleeplessness and fear. The whole experience is more than unpleasant and sometimes even debilitating for the manager who has to do the deed.

But bosses get no sympathy for the emotional turmoil that goes with the job. When it comes to handling the negative personal fallout of firings, you’re on your own.

In my time as a manager, I discovered that the better prepared I was for both the decision to fire and the event itself, the more comfortable — and less emotional — I was with what needed to be done.

Over time, I developed two sets of rules that helped me prevent many of the unpleasant feelings about firing someone.

The first rules governed making the decision about whether to fire, and the second guided how to fire. I found that if I followed these rules, I felt comfortable that I had done the best that I could.

(I’m not sure whether your lawyers would agree with all of these, but I rarely had the advice of lawyers in these situations. These rules are strictly for peace of mind in making the decision, not necessarily for freedom from wrongful-termination lawsuits.)

Deciding Whether to Fire

1. The person being fired should never be surprised by what’s happening to him.

2. The person being fired had to have been given explicit warnings prior to being fired.

3. The person being fired had to have been advised of specific steps he needed to take to keep his job.

4. The person being fired had to have been offered support to help him learn what he needed to learn to keep his job.

5. The person being fired had to have been given a reasonable period of time to comply with your expectations. The nature of the employee’s response to the offer of help could significantly expand or contract what’s considered a reasonable period of time.

6. Illegal behavior or actions opening the company to significant legal risk could nullify all the other rules. If someone was involved in illegal activities related to work or actions that could be considered sexual harassment, he wouldn’t deserve the same degree of help and warnings that others get.

Carrying Out the Decision to Fire

1. Never delegate the dirty work. If I decided to fire someone, I had to be willing to look him in the eye and tell him so.

2. The meeting should be face to face. No phone, fax, e-mail or IM.

3. Keep it short. The meeting should last no more than five minutes. There’s no reason to drag out something that’s so painful for the employee.

4. Use simple, factual, nonaccusatory language. “I’m sorry to inform you that today will be your last day with us at XYZ Corp.,” instead of, “You just aren’t pulling your weight.”

5. Don’t go into the reasons for the dismissal. Since it shouldn’t be a surprise, he already knows what the problem is.

6. Don’t answer any questions about the decision or the performance of the person being fired. The time for that has passed. Your answers won’t be heard anyway. Questions about the mechanics of exit should be referred to someone else.

7. Have another person handle the details of the exit. The last thing that the fired person wants is to spend the next half an hour with you going over the minutiae of last paychecks and insurance.

While firing staff is among the most unpleasant things that a manager must do, with a structured approach, the discomfort for everyone involved can be minimized.

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