Firing Is Never Easy
“I thought you were avoiding Manhattan this week. You know, the Convention and all.” I’m sitting next to Sam, my 14-year-old, driving him home from the Clearview Cinemas’ Soundview Theater. He’s just seen “Hero” and we’re talking about our plans for the next day.
“I have to go to fire someone; someone who works at one of the non-profits I work with. Believe me, if I wouldn’t go if I didn’t have to.”
“What’s it like to fire someone?”
It’s really tough; maybe the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do as a manager. Some firings are clear cut. The first person I ever fired violated a cardinal rule of our business. A reporter at the magazine I managed in the 1980s, he’d punched a fellow worker. That, as I said, was clear cut; punching fellow staff people is a violation of company policy — -even if the policy is unstated.
That didn’t mean the actually firing was easy. The reporter worked in our California office and I was in our headquarters on Long Island. I took the first flight out of JFK to San Francisco, got to the office around 11 a.m.
“Joseph*, why did you hit Lenny*?”
“It was a tap’ not really a hit.”
“Okay, why did you ‘tap’ him?”
“He was wrong.”
“Joseph, I’m sorry but I can’t let you hit, tap, or touch your colleagues. Please get your stuff. We’ll pay you through the next two weeks.” And I took the first flight back to New York. I was scared witless and wanted out of there as soon as possible.
Another employee, another firing was also clear cut. Theft was also against company policy. This fellow was an editor at the magazine. His job was to assign stories to freelance writers and edit them. No problem there. The problem was he had “hired” himself to write a few stories under a fictitious persona, collected a few extra dollars and no one was the wiser; except when we started getting complaints about the “facts” in this “freelancer’s” stories. We finally asked for a meeting with the freelancer. The editor stalled and then finally confessed: the “freelancer” was his brother who, while going through a divorce, was trying to earn money while keeping his soon-to-be-ex unaware of the income.
When THAT story fell apart, he confessed that, in fact, HE was the writer. “But what’s the problem?” he asked, “Most magazines allow people to freelance.” That’s true. But most don’t allow their staff to get paid twice over for the same material.
“Think of my kids,” he said when I fired him.
“You should have thought them before you lied to us.”
Unfortunately, most firings aren’t so clear cut. Most people try to do their jobs. Most try to respond to repeated warnings. Most try to improve. Those are tough. Letting go an employee who you know has done their best but is still not up to the job is perhaps the toughest call. It’s in those situations that you think of the kids, the spouse, the employee themselves.
You search your heart, review the past and think, where did I go wrong? Like the parent of the Prodigal Son, you want to welcome that lost kid back into the fold kill the fatted calf as a celebration.
Rehabilitation of poorly performing staff people happens enough times to fool you, to make you think that, if you only tried hard enough, you could have saved this one as well.
And so you put it off. And you come up with second and third (and even fourth chances). And, in the meantime, you frustrate and anger the staff around the person.
“What’s wrong with management?” they say. “Don’t they see what’s going on?”
And those staffers are right. You do have to stop making excuses and act. You owe it to the rest of the staff, you owe it to yourself and, it’s a bit trite to say, you owe it to the employee who needs to be fired.
Most folks who aren’t performing well know it. Most are miserable about it. Most are waiting to be cut loose. For those situations, I try to follow a few simple rules:
Be honest. Sugar-coating the message only ensures that whatever confusion the employee felt in the months leading up the dismissal will continue. If they are being fired for poor performance, say so. Be as specific as possible and give clear examples. Ideally you’ll have had many discussions before hand about performance (although most start-ups rarely can afford this type of investment in management) and you can refer to those discussions.
Be open. Listen closely to the employee’s reactions. When we hurt someone (and let’s face it, that’s what we’re doing when we fire someone), it’s natural to throw up our own defenses and metaphorically cover our ears. Listen to the employee. It may be your last chance to hear from them their perspective on why they failed. You may also get invaluable insight into the cultural problems at the organization; after all, they’ve nothing to lose and they’re likely to be honest.
Be willing to face their anger. There’s an arc of emotions that all fired employees travel: shock, anger, fear, hurt, defensiveness, blame, and, finally, fear again. Let them experience the whole range of emotions. Don’t let YOUR fear of their anger force you to cut short their emotional arc. Regardless of their reasons for failure, they are entitled to that.
Understand the reactions of the fellow staffers. Remember those folks who thought you so blind to this fellow’s shortcomings? Remember how hard they pressed you (overtly or covertly) to let this person go? The minute you fire the employee, their anger shifts to sympathy and empathy. “How could he fire them? They have two kids!” they say all the while thinking, “Damn. This could happen to me.” The entire organization also has an emotional arc; let them feel what they need to feel.
Talk about what happened. Before I become the chief editor at the magazine we had a leader who used to “disappear” staff people akin to the way South American juntas would get rid of opponents. No one ever talked about poor ol’ Joe whose desk was suddenly empty. Nothing can be more disruptive to a staff than to NOT talk about the obvious. And missing employees — -even hated fellow workers — -are obvious. Gather the staff, explain what happened (You can skip details and be discreet about causation. They’ll all have their own explanations anyway.), and take questions. “Is this evidence of financial problems?” “Who’s going to do their work?” ‘Are more people being fired?” Be prepared to answer all.
Lastly, above all, respect the dignity of the terminated staffer. Aside from the moral imperative, it’s good management practice. Remember, everyone is watching every move you make (again out of sympathy and/or empathy). Go out of your way to make the transition as easy as possible. On many levels, it’s the right thing to do.
None of the above will make the task easier on you, the manager. It’ll still be tough. But you just may be able to sleep a little easier.
*names have been changed
This piece was written in 2004, and originally published on Inc.com.