When Cuyahoga County executives decided to complete a round of layoffs in 2011, they decided to experiment with a new way of letting people go. As their employees opened the front doors of their homes the next morning, they were greeted with a plainclothes sheriff’s detective to deliver their pink slips.
The company claims it was trying to find a method that was easiest on the people being laid off. But it seems obvious that they were really looking for the easiest path for their own management.
After questions came up regarding the idiocy of this decision, the HR Director doubled down, saying this method was “the smoothest way and most dignified way of doing layoffs.”
Personally, I don’t see anything dignified about receiving your lay-off notice in the same manner as an arrest warrant. And the only person who would consider this “smooth” is the manager that’s too much of a coward to have the necessary conversation.
But while this is may be an extreme, the process of firing people is rarely handled well. It’s often one of the most difficult jobs a manager will ever have to do. Even when it’s clearly the right business decision, you’re still telling someone that he no longer has a job and no longer has a means of supporting his family. That’s a tough situation for anyone, especially if it’s someone you’ve worked with for years.
And despite this difficulty – and despite the importance of handling these situations well – most companies offer no training or preparation on how to fire people. Maybe because it’s a difficult topic to discuss. Or maybe people believe that they’ll be able to prepare once they’re in the situation.
Except the process of letting someone go with professionalism and dignity begins well before the final meeting. And unless people understand the fundamentals of firing someone well, they’re unlikely to stumble their way into it.
While letting someone go will never be an easy part of a manager’s job, there are a number of things you can do to better manage the process. And hopefully avoid sending sheriff’s detectives to your employees’ houses.
Don’t Think That You Don’t Need a Reason.
If you work in an employment-at-will state, that means you can fire someone for any reason or no reason at all, right? Wrong.
For one, employment-at-will does not authorize discrimination. There’s an ever-growing alphabet soup of legislative exceptions that limit an employer’s ability to fire people “at-will.” To name a few:
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Civil Rights Acts
- Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
- Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA)
- Equal Pay Act (EPA)
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
- False Claims Act (FCA)
- Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA)
- National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
- Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)
- Worker Adjustment, Retraining, and Notice Act (WARN)
- Multiple Human Relations Acts and Workers’ Compensation Acts that are dependent on the state.
There are plenty of others and the list keeps growing. And while it’s completely ridiculous that you can still be fired for being LGTBQ in many states, in general, employment-at-will doesn’t offer a blank check to fire anyone you might not like.
Which, although it may add to your own paperwork, is a very good thing. While the majority of people aren’t bigots looking to fire anyone of a different gender, race, or religion, everyone does have their own biases. And while we’re often quick to spot them in others, most of us will overlook the same behavior in ourselves.
Firing someone without an objective reason – because they just don’t feel right – is a sign that you’re falling prey to an internal bias. And making a critical decision based on irrational data.
But while it’s always important to understand the legal requirements, your standard of behavior shouldn’t be dictated by that minimum. Your own ethics and integrity should demand a higher threshold of performance.
Firing someone will have an immediate, negative impact on their life. Doing so for reasons other than an objective performance issue is both unfair and unethical.
It also sends the message to the rest of your team that they can be let go for ambiguous reasons. And few things undermine the creative output of a team like a fear for their jobs.
Regardless of whether you work in an employment-at-will environment, good leaders always have a solid, performance-based justification for letting someone go. Anything less is just poor management.
Don’t Fire Anyone without First Giving Them the Chance to Improve.
“Be transparent about why the termination is happening. If you did things right, it shouldn’t be a surprise to the person.” – Christine Tsai
Few things make someone angrier than feeling blindsided on performance issues. And nowhere is this more critical than in making a decision to fire someone.
Unless it’s an egregious act – or brings up issues with someone’s integrity – there’s little excuse for not trying to help people improve through coaching and feedback.
Yes, giving negative feedback is tough. It’s easy to look the other way while performance problems are minor. But problems rarely get better on their own. And the longer you wait to address them, the more difficult they’ll eventually be to resolve.
People deserve the chance to understand where they’re falling short and take action to correct these areas. This only happens when we’re transparent, offer constructive feedback, and give people the chance to make an improvement.
The actual termination will likely be somewhat of a surprise. No one ever thinks they should be fired, or believes you’ll actually go through with it, regardless of the feedback they’ve received to date. But hopefully, it doesn’t come without warning.
Firing someone is a difficult situation for everyone. If people have the opportunity to improve and don’t take advantage of it, it makes a difficult situation a little easier. And it makes it clear that it’s the best overall decision for everyone involved.
Don’t Fire Anyone While You’re Angry
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret,” Ambrose Bierce advised. And just like our words, decisions made and actions taken while angry often become a major source of regret.
Firing someone should never be a snap decision. In addition to the impact on the employee, it creates a significant cost in hiring and training a replacement. Before going down this path, we should objectively see it as the only viable path forward.
Anger prevents this rational analysis. It makes us hotheaded. It causes us to choose long shots over safe bets, rely more on stereotypes, and ignore the advice of others. Mainly, anger clouds our ability to rationally assess the situation and weigh different options – setting us up for a poor long-term decision.
Take some time to cool down. Make sure that you can say you’ve calmly assessed all of your options before taking action. And make a sound decision – preferably one you won’t regret later.
At the very least, don’t create a reputation as someone who can’t control himself when things don’t go his way.
“Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt,” wrote the great David Mamet in Ronin, emphasizing the importance of being decisive and moving forward. And whether it’s battle or business, the ability to make a decision and commit to a necessary course of action is often the difference between success and failure.
Once you recognize the need to let someone go – or even just start the process – it’s critical to act quickly and decisively. It’s easy to let personal sympathies prevent you from following through once you know the right decision. And it’s easy to rationalize giving people yet another chance. But doing so just delays the inevitable. And it makes the eventual termination much more drawn out and painful for everyone involved.
Managers rarely regret acting too quickly in letting someone go, but many regret waiting too long. Doing so is unfair to the organization, the rest of your team who’s picking up the slack, and most importantly, to the employee. As Peter Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive,
“It is the duty of the executive to remove ruthlessly anyone—and especially any manager—who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a man stay on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization. It is grossly unfair to his subordinates who are deprived by their superior’s inadequacy of opportunities for achievement and recognition. Above all, it is senseless cruelty to the man himself. He knows that he is inadequate whether he admits it to himself or not. Indeed, I have never seen anyone in a job for which he was inadequate who was not slowly being destroyed by the pressure and the strains, and who did not secretly pray for deliverance.“
Don’t Try to Handle It Alone
Firing someone is not a regular occurrence for most managers. So you shouldn’t expect to be a practiced expert. Yet there are likely other managers who’ve handled this situation before. And your HR department will have the benefit of being involved in similar occurrences as well. Use the resources at your disposal.
The other concern is that, especially in the US, anyone can sue anybody at any time. Having someone else involved, especially someone more practiced, can help keep things in control and make sure people are treated equally across the organization.
Don’t Drag it Out
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
When it comes time to deliver the message, don’t drag out the conversation. Starting out with some pleasant small talk is disingenuous and sends the wrong signal. Doing so is simply a way for you to delay what’s necessary.
You want to demonstrate both concern and respect, but make sure your words are straightforward. Being vague or indecisive only confuses people and makes them believe that the decision isn’t final.
People will ask for reasons and explanations, but avoid getting into a debate over the decision. There’s little benefit in repeating past performance discussions and doing so will only lead to an argument. And again, there’s no benefit it letting people believe they can change your mind at this point.
While it may seem harsh in the moment, delivering the message quickly and in a straightforward manner is much kinder than drawing it out or letting someone believe it’s up for further debate.
Don’t Tell People That They’ll Be Better Off.
“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” – Steve Jobs
Yes, Steve Jobs was ultimately better off after having been fired from Apple. And the same ends up being true for many people over the long course of their careers. If someone’s struggling in their current role, starting fresh somewhere else is likely to be in their long-term best interest.
But no one wants to hear that the moment they get fired. They’re worried about what they’re going to go home and tell their family. They’re worried about paying next month’s bills. They’re not thinking about how this will impact their long-term career. Reserve this thought for yourself.
And don’t tell people that’s it’s just as difficult for you as it is for them. It’s not. Not even close.
Don’t End on a Negative Note.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Losing a job can be traumatic. And people will likely look back on this day as a very difficult one. But through it all, they should always be treated with empathy, respect, and dignity.
The intent isn’t to demean or debase anyone. It’s in everyone’s best interest if they move forward with as little issues as possible.
So make sure to end things on a positive note. Wish him or her well. Help them understand the next steps. And be encouraging that they’ll find a job that will better fit their skills.
The Right Way to Let Someone Go.
“My advice on firing is simple: Treat that person the same way you’d want to be treated if you were in that situation. They’re still a good person, just not the right fit. So how do you help them move on in a productive way that allows them to maintain their dignity?” – Mary Barra
How you treat someone who’s on their way out the door will say a lot about your character. We’ve all seen managers who’ve handled this situation with professionalism and grace. And we’ve all seen managers who’ve acted like petulant children.
People deserve the respect and dignity that we would want if the situations were reversed. Remembering that golden advice we’ve heard since kindergarten: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” shows us which practices are appropriate, and which are just our own rationalizations.
How would you want to be treated?
- To not be let go without an objective, performance-based reason.
- To have understood you weren’t meeting expectations and given the chance to improve.
- To be treated with the respect of a direct, straightforward conversation.
- To be told without delay once a decision is made instead of being strung along.
- And to have things end on as positive of a note as possible.
How you handle this situation really does matter to the employee who is being fired. And it matters to the rest of your team – all of whom are using this as a measure of how they could be treated at some point in the future.