[How to Fire Someone] Part 1: The Termination

 

The note from my cycling friend began: 

Fired red stamp

“Hi Mike

Part of my problem is that I’ve never fired (or even broken up) with anybody.

Could you call me at your convenience – perhaps this afternoon?  I can’t remember some of your keywords/points.

I would love if somebody could do this 4 me.”

Firing people from their jobs should be hard. As somebody who has fired more people than I can recall – the downside of longevity as an HR practitioner and businessperson at a time of large-scale lay-offs and restructurings – if it becomes easy you’re in the wrong business.

And by firing someone I’m not talking about lay-offs due to job eliminations because of business slowdowns, or rules violation, like smoking dope in the bathroom: those termination are mostly straightforward and matter of fact.

The firings I’m addressing are those for people you might like and who aren’t performing satisfactorily in the job in which they work.

So how DO you fire someone?

First, I assume you’ve done all the right things your HR rep or labor attorney will tell you to do [Disclaimer : I’m not an attorney, and I hung up my HR rep badge a long time ago] such as clear expectations, timely, specific feedback, and coaching and training as appropriate.

I’m also describing what would generally be appropriate and acceptable in the United States in a non-union setting– other places (and other countries) may have specific procedures, employment contracts or labor agreements which require things be done differently.

Second, as you soon as you note the person’s performance is headed in the wrong direction, I also assume that you’ve been direct and specific with the person. When things get to a point where the person is either going to sink of swim, my preferred language is: “ I’d like to keep you with employed here but if you don’t perform as you need to you’ll be fired.” (I can feel some employment attorneys cringing as I write this: authenticity and the law sometimes wear very different hats.)

Avoid using the phrase “we may have to make some changes – it’s not direct and some people will miss it. The conversation you have with the employee BEFORE the person gets fired should be that big ‘ol screaming siren signaling WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

Last, if you know they are a value to your organization, help find them a role that is a better fit in which they can succeed early in the evaluation process rather than let them hang in a role that will end up with them being fired.

What are the principles?

Be authentic, be brief, and be specific.

A decision has been made (by you and perhaps someone else) to separate somebody from their employment (the euphemism for being fired, whacked, or sacked) and there’s no use to draw it out or otherwise belabor the point.

This is also a private conversation – find a quiet spot (break room with a Do Not Disturb sign up, office, etc. Not in the middle of an office. Not in an e-mail (use the phone if you’re geographically separated and can’t figure out a way to meet in person) and not in a letter that you’ve slipped in their in-box.

What do you say and do?

1. (Employee’s name) I want to talk with you regarding your employment at ABC.

2. We’ve had a number of discussions in the past about the requirements of this job, and the performance you need to demonstrate to stay employed here.

3. Things have not things have improved to a satisfactory level on an ongoing basis.

4. I’m sorry to let you know this will be your last day in this job and your employment with the company will be on SPECIFY THE DATE

5. I’ll be glad to talk with you at a later date if you have questions, or want to talk about the appropriateness of any references.

6. For right now I’ll help you get any personal items packed up, I’d like your keys to the office (or anything else that needs to be picked up), and let’s talk about anything appropriate that you like me to say if people call the office looking for you (such as “She is no longer working here, here’s an e-mail where you can reach her.)

7. Note that many states in the US may require people to be given a final paycheck on their last day of employment, and there may be certain benefits information (health benefit continuation information known as COBRA) that must be communicated at or immediately after the employment termination.

8. Inform people who worked with the fired employee that the person is no longer with the firm. This move is specifically to get in front of rumors (“Did you hear? Joe died.”) It can wait until the next day (you can say something such as “Joe is out for the afternoon”) and it should be matter of fact: Joe is no longer with the firm.

Calls or information requests that would normally go to him should be routed to some other person like you or perhaps someone we’ll call Jane. If the person – Joe in this case – is an e-mail user put on some sort of e-mail bounce to the effect of “Joe is no longer with the firm. Something appropriate for voicemail as well if answering the phone is part of the gig. Please contact Jane Doe at jane@ABC.com for matters formerly handled by Joe.

Things to avoid?

  • Avoid telling the person how hard it is for you to fire them, or how you’ve spent sleepless nights over the decision. It may be true. But it’s also true that this is usually harder on the employee being fired so I’d leave your hurts as a supervisor out of the picture.
  • Avoid telling the employee one story when they are being fired and others – fellow supervisors, lord forbid co-workers, clients or vendors – a different story. The world, as my fellow board member from a non-profit organization Wendy Yanowitch says, is made of six people and lots of mirrors: it’s a small, small world.
  • Avoid going off script. This conversation is brief and it’s about stating some simple facts, and helping someone get out the door with as much dignity as possible. People who go off script end up saying things that are frequently not helpful (“It wasn’t my decision.” “I wish you had to be in my shoes.” And other real doozies I’ve heard through the years).
  • Avoid beating yourself up. It’s sad to fire someone, but I don’t think that you’re helping someone by keeping them in a role where they aren’t performing.

Sometimes – not often but just often enough – people thank you for firing them (assuming you’re authentic, treated them with dignity, etc.) if it leads to the person finding a role that’s a better fit or moving out of a role in which they were miserable.

And my friend whose request for advice triggered this post? Last word she is still procrastinating.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.

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  1. Pingback: [How to Fire Someone] 5 Ways You Can “Hire Wrong” | Life Back West

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