How to Master the Difficult Task of Firing
How fire someone while remembering the human element and protecting the company
Originally published in the 8/26/2020 newsletter
There is no harder task in a manager’s responsibilities than terminating one of their colleague’s employment.
There are many reasons to fire an employee: someone could be failing to meet performance metrics, their role/department/budget might be disappearing, or in some cases, a colleague is simply a disruptive element in the workplace and has been resistant to shifting their behavior to something more appropriate for the company culture.
These aren’t the only reasons for a termination, but they do cover the majority of firings that happen. In all of these cases, there are two important rules to keep in mind that can guide any manager through this difficult process with grace and clarity:
1. Remember the Human Element
2. Protect the Company
These two concepts may sound contradictory but they are not. If handled correctly, they are not only complementary but synergistic. So, what lessons can we keep in mind to help us perform this unpleasant task? Let’s dig in.
The Human Element
The human element is the heart of any strong organization. At the end of the day, the efficacy of a firm is only as strong as the working relationships of the people who comprise its ranks. The human element of business management is at the heart of all professional interactions and firing is no different.
First, and most importantly, we must remember that in being terminated, one’s entire way of life is being upended. People spend nearly half of their waking life engaged in their career, and to suddenly lose that sense of stability and community is incredibly difficult. Beyond that, when you fire someone (in countries without Universal Basic Income) you are revoking their sense of stability in being able to afford to shelter, feed, and clothe themselves or their family.
“But isn’t it their responsibility to build up their savings so they can afford a disruption to their lives in case of the worst?”
It might be, but your role as an employer or supervisor is not to police how your employees manage their money. They might be dealing with medical expenses, or aggressively paying down student debt. The most important thing to remember in firing someone is that they are a fellow human being, and whatever the circumstances of their termination, they deserve to be met with compassion.
In most cases, an off-cycle one-on-one with a manager raises some questions, and if a person feels at all insecure in their position, they are likely to enter the room a little on edge. Let your employee know that you have valued their contributions to the firm EVEN IF they are being terminated for failing to meet benchmarks or for disrupting the sanctity of the workplace. In circumstances where layoffs are for departmental or budgetary reasons, give them some context for their termination.
In all cases, it’s important to connect with your employee first to soften the blow. This is an uncomfortable job, but no matter how unpleasant it is for you in delivering the bad news, it is far harder to receive it, so suck it up and do what you can to comfort them. Use your operational resources as best you can: severance packages can make employees feel like they are still valued by the company even if they will no longer be employed, especially if they extend health insurance benefits for even a month after termination.
If support for employees beyond their termination isn’t in the budget, the least you can do as a manager is offer them assurance that the company will cooperate with their unemployment filing, and include a letter of recommendation that they can use in applying for future work.
Remember: sudden and severe disruptions of a person’s life is an emotionally challenging and sometimes traumatic event. A manager who remembers the human element is one who helps their employees transition into the next stage of their lives gently and gives them whatever support is available to move beyond the company successfully.
Protecting the Company
Comforting and supporting an employee on-the-out may seem to some like a pointless use of company resources. After all, they’re on the way out, shouldn’t we be investing in the people and practices that are still part of the organization?
The surprising detail that this harsh, capital-centric viewpoint misses is that supporting an employee that is exiting the firm is an efficient insurance policy against the fallout of a bad fire.
We’ve discussed the value of empathy and continued support in creating a good fire, so what does a bad one look like?
A bad fire is screaming on the way out of the office, smashed computers, stolen IP, threads full of scathing posts on social media, graffiti and smashed windows the next morning. These might seem like extreme examples, but they can and do happen. A firm I once consulted for saw a bad fire steal years of proprietary research into chemical processes and found a direct competitor overseas where US patent law couldn’t prevent them from selling identical products internationally.If permissions and access must be revoked, coordinate with IT to close those digital doors DURING your meeting, not before or after. If they keep a notebook full of sensitive information it might be worth having another manager photocopy the pages or even confiscate it if the contents are full of proprietary information. Work with your security team to have a protocol in place that can be enacted efficiently so that you can focus on the hard empathetic work of softening the blow.
While this may sound extreme, the minute possibility of catastrophic blowback from firing a bad employee is an outlier that must be taken into consideration. In most cases, however, the biggest impact that firings can have on a company is on the culture. When people disappear, it ripples out across the whole corporate ecosystem.
This is where remembering the human element and protecting the company are one and the same.
If people are worried about their own termination, they are likely to focus less on collaborating openly and focus more on jockeying for status to ensure that they look more essential than their colleagues. If a round of layoffs makes people uncertain about the stability of the company, then formerly contented employees might start looking for new positions with other companies. Your responsibility as a manager is to quell these concerns and maintain the integrity of your team.
People talk, and when someone is no longer in the office, you can assume that everyone who worked with them is going to reach out and check in on someone that has been a part of their working life over previous months or years. If the terminated employee leaves with a bad taste in their mouth, that ill will can creep back into the workings of your organization through channels over which you have no control. Through compassionate communication and company-backed support, however, a skilled manager can turn a terminated employee into a spokesperson for the health and decency of the company.
Taking good care of your terminated employees not only lessens the emotional difficulty of firing them, but it also reinforces the stability of the organization as a whole. Providing financial and job-hunting support to fired employees means that everyone who remains knows that the company will take the same care of them if their position disappears. When the last time someone leaves the office is on good terms, the disruption to their colleagues’ mental models of the workplace is lessened and work can continue.
Remember: reputations are a hard thing to shake. If a string of bad fires turns into a string of negative reviews on recruiting sites like glassdoor, then your actions as a manager not only jeopardize the productivity of your current employees, but put you at risk of losing future qualified staff who choose not to seek work with your company because of the reputation you have earned.
After all, if you lost your job and had to look for new work, wouldn’t you rather apply at a company that received glowing reviews from the people it was forced to fire?
This post was written by Caedmon Webb. Webb is a serial entrepreneur from a family of serial entrepreneurs with twin passions for gaming and business management. After 10 years of brick-and-mortar management and 5 years as a Project Manager in games QA for Microsoft, he leveraged his education in Business Administration to found GreenHaus Analytical Labs which has scaled up from a single facility in Oregon to a national contender in its field after its acquisition by Evio Inc. Propelled by this successful venture, Caedmon has returned to the gaming industry to found Project: Stamina, a studio dedicated to simultaneously accelerating the careers of student and amateur game developers while producing a groundbreaking online multiplayer title.