Firing someone is awful, both for the person doing the firing and, obviously, for the person being asked to leave. Most good managers find the actual deed incredibly difficult. The person being let go might be having the worst day of his career.
So how do you manage a parting of ways with as little pain and damage as possible? The answer is pretty straightforward: Managers need to accept that letting people go is a process that they must fully own and pay careful attention to several dos and don’ts.
Usually, the choice to fire someone for non-performance isn’t black and white, since precisely who did what and what went wrong in the lead-up to the finale can be unclear. For this reason, managers often get firings wrong in one of three ways:
1. Moving too fast: Take the case of a friend who worked at a small but expanding company where, as with many companies that size, mediocre performance was generally tolerated in the name of congeniality. When my friend was promoted to head a 60-person unit, she soon realized that the man in charge of distribution, “Richard”, could not handle the increasingly complex logistics. To exacerbate matters, Richard constantly challenged her authority.
My friend addressed these shortcomings with Richard, to no avail. Finally, an important customer called to complain that his shipment was a week late. My friend had had it. Richard had to go.
To many, including Richard, the decision came as a surprise. Some staffers felt that he had not been given enough warning and they complained that they could no longer trust their boss or the organization.
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It took my friend around three months to restore equilibrium and get her unit moving again.
2. Not being candid enough: Say you’ve got a long-time employee named Gail, who can’t reach her sales quotas no matter how hard she tries. Every time you try to tell her how badly she’s doing, she’s so cheerful and oblivious that you end up hiding your negative feelings behind a mixed message about “working smarter”. The situation culminates when Gail really screws up, and you impulsively fire her. Shocked, she reminds you of all the positive feedback you have given her over the years, and ultimately leaves angry and bitter.
This may not be the last you hear of her. Every employee who leaves continues to represent your company. For the next five, 10 or 20 years, they will either bad-mouth or praise your organization.
3. Taking too long: The third mistake occurs when a firing happens too slowly. Everyone knows that a person is about to be fired, including the person himself, but the boss waits a long time to pull the trigger. The result is enormous awkwardness in the office that can lead to a sort of paralysis.
Why do bosses allow this to occur? Well, firing is so tough that no one likes to do it, and so the event often gets delayed. But sometimes in this situation a manager lets an employee twist in the wind because he wants the victim’s peers to see the necessity of the decision. In a way it’s cruel, but most bosses would rather be known as careful than quick on the trigger.
If there are so many ways that firing can go wrong, how do you avoid making mistakes?
1. No surprises: Very simply, a good performance evaluation process informs and prepares people for what’s ahead in the fairest, most open way possible.
If people know where they stand, no one actually gets fired. Instead, when things are not working out, there is eventually a mutual understanding that it’s time to part ways.
In some instances, it can take a couple of years for the endgame to become clear to everyone, but along the way, there will have been many candid conversations about performance and career goals. The possibility of parting ways will have been raised and discussed openly.
2. Minimize humiliation: For a boss, finally delivering the bad news elicits relief. “It’s over,” you tell yourself. “I did it kindly, and now I can focus on other work.”
However, your employee is probably pretty upset. If you’ve done everything right, he won’t be surprised, but he may still be feeling hurt.
The next day and until he departs, you must make sure he doesn’t feel like an outcast in a leper colony. Build up his self-confidence. Let him know there is a good job for him out there—a job that better matches his skills. You may even help him find it. Your goal for the fired employee is a soft landing wherever he goes.
Firings are an unfortunate reality of business. Still, if you handle them right, they can at least be tolerable for the people involved. When it’s time to let someone go, do it right. No surprises. No humiliation.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
©2009/The NYT Syndicate
Adapted from Winning (HarperBusiness Publishers, 2005) by Jack Welch with Suzy Welch.)