A Short But Meaningful Conversation
Of all the functions and tasks I’ve had to perform, the one I truly hate the most and have never gotten fully used to doing, is firing someone.This is a tough subject to talk about.
It’s Personal: There is nothing more personal than losing your job. A job is a foundation for most people. Losing it deprives them of income, which in turn deprives them of security. It also deprives their family – spouse, kids, etc. – of that same security. That is incredibly unsettling and very stressful. I have had management and HR people tell me, “It’s not personal.” This is flat-out wrong. There is nothing more personal than losing your job. Don’t insult the person being fired by pretending it isn’t.
It’s Painful: Being fired hurts. It hurts the person being fired the most. But it also hurts the one doing the firing (although not nearly as much, to be sure). But if you have any humanity inside you, it hurts. Other employees see what is going on. They might be upset. Or scared. There is plenty of collateral damage to go around.
I’ve never enjoyed letting someone go. Many times I’ve wished I didn’t have to. I certainly never enjoyed it when it happened to me.
HR has always told me to never apologize during a firing. I disagree. If you feel like saying, “sorry,” then SAY it. If you were a decent boss, then you will certainly feel like saying something. And let’s be honest, a firing is rarely 100% the employee’s fault. As the boss, did you do everything you could to help the employee be successful? If there is a large layoff, did the company do everything it could to foresee an economic downturn? The answer to both is likely “No.” Once, when I was being let go, the HR manager asked me, "Can I get you something? A box?" That pretty much sums it up there. She offered me a box. An empty box. There is quite a metaphor in that anecdote.
I’m always amazed that CEOs can trot out grandiose plans for a company’s expansion: “Here is what we will do with 5% growth, and here is our projection for 10% growth! Look at these charts!” But when asked what will they do if the company’s revenue shrinks by the same amount, all you get is a blank stare. Any idiot can spend money when it is flowing like a faucet. A true leader knows how to modulate the company’s levers to minimize the impact to its employees. Mind you, the company’s goals are never to just provide work for the employees – it is to generate revenue for the owners and shareholders. Having said that, there is a certain social responsibility that companies have towards their employees. We are seeing more of this in larger tech companies, who are demanding that their employers behave in more responsible ways. And honestly, if a CEO can’t see a downturn or fluctuation coming, he/she isn’t a very good CEO.
I have never liked the practice of walking someone out the door. Yes, there are sometimes circumstances that warrant additional precautions. Yes, some people will do crazy things when being fired. But the vast majority are professionals, and the most common reaction is to want to leave as fast as possible, go home, and process what just happened. But being escorted out is humiliating and degrading. HR will claim that it is “company policy” and for “security”, but I have fortunately never had to do it. Stripping another person of his/her humanity at the point where they are most vulnerable should outweigh the urge to be heavy-handed or vengeful. If a company feels the need for security, it should be discrete and out of sight, but quickly available. And as for protecting the company’s secrets, if the employee in question is someone you are concerned might take data with them, it’s too late. They copied it weeks ago. And many employees will keep records of their presentations and work at home anyway. As for the fear of sabotage, IT can certainly temporarily suspend or restrict an employee’s access. My general philosophy is to trust people until they give you a reason not to. If there is a legitimate fear of sabotage, or the individual has access to especially sensitive information or systems, then it is prudent to take precautions. But as a blanket, across-the board policy, it is a bad idea. Any in the vast majority of cases, an employee just doesn't have enough systems access to do any real harm, and most just want to leave. Another way to look at it is this: would the company walk out the CEO or CFO in the same manner? If the answer is no, then the policy is unfair.
If you have to fire someone, here are my tips:
Be polite and respectful. Do not be angry, regardless of the reasons for the termination. Anger is NEVER appropriate.
Never blame the employee. Even if it is their fault, they’re the ones losing the job, not you. And blame won’t solve anything.
It is not about you. Don’t make it about you. Don’t talk about you. Don’t share a story about how it once happened to you. They don’t care – right now, it is happening to them.
Don’t make excuses. People are professional enough to handle it maturely.They may have questions. Answer them as honestly as you can. If you are unable, say so and say why.
Have an HR rep or other manager in the room. Say what you have to say, then leave and let the HR rep do their job.
Go home. Take a deep breath. Have a glass of scotch or wine. Reflect on the event, what went right and wrong, and how you can do better next time. Then go to work the next day and be the best boss you can be.
Oftentimes you will find your options limited. You need to do your job and do it well. The HR policies are there to protect you and the company, so you need to follow them. What you can control is your tone in the meeting. It is likely you will cross paths with the soon-to-be former employee in the future. Be decent and humane; empathetic and sympathetic. One day it will be your turn.