The Good Time to Fire Someone?

Grim reaper crossed out with red X

Time to Fire Someone?

Journalist (and Twitter friend) Kara Swisher noted regarding the Carol Bartz debacle that “there really is no good time to fire someone.”

I think Kara’s work is great, and I’d suggest otherwise.

There are good times to fire people.

Lord knows that as someone who worked as a corporate HR exec during the height of the restructuring boom in the 80’s and 90’s I’ve fired more people than I can count. 99% of them were in the wrong place and at the wrong time. 1% should have been fired.

There are good times to fire people and mostly it has to do with the why you fire them, not the when. And I’ll outline below a few thoughts about when the time to fire someone is now.

First some thoughts about the Yahoo Board of Director’s firing of CEO Carol Bartz – something for you if you’re on a board and wrestling with a similar situation. The HP BOD is apparently thinking similar thoughts about their CEO – the fact that it’s so public is not a good early sign – and we’ll see how well they manage the process.

  • Lesson 1: Don’t fire people over the phone.
  • Lesson 2: Don’t fire your CEO without a go forward plan as in who if anyone will replace the position, or if you plan sell the company.
  • Lesson 3: Don’t fire someone who is executing on what they said they’d do when you hired them even if he/she has not schmoozed and been as charming with the board members as you’d like.

So when is a good time to fire someone?

  • Fire someone (terminate their employment in HR politesse) when they’ve intentionally compromised the reasonable rules of an organization. Setting standards is not a “utter once and done” proposition, but rather an ongoing conversation. If your standard is that you don’t steal (from customers, from colleagues, and from the firm) and someone steals, than they should be fired. It’s pretty clear they’re not able or willing to work with the contract you’ve set for employees of the organization – and it should hold if they’re the CEO or the least paid person on staff.
  • Fire someone when they’re not able or willing to subordinate their personal goals to the needs of the greater organization. Call it the Kobe Bryant syndrome, but if an individual is putting their interests above all others then they should be fired. These type of individuals are a cancer and heck, no one ever dealt well with cancer by seeing how long they could last while it spread.
  • Fire someone when they’re unwilling to do the job they’re asked to do. I subscribe, as Barbara Kraemer-Cook from my son’s grade school MCDS quoted Tom Sturges, a “grow the trees you got” philosophy. It means you take the time and effort to develop people. The downside, though, is sometimes people don’t want to do the work (and job) that needs to be done. (And note that I’m not talking about abusing people – it’s just that all sorts of things from making copies, making presentations, to running to Office Depot on the way to work have to get done to make things click.) Folks who choose not to pitch in are folks I’d choose to go work someplace else.
  • Last, and similar to following the rules, fire someone who is unwilling or consistently unable to support the values by appropriate behaviors. Sort of like bouncing the priest who insists on wearing a pornographic watch, it’s OK to have living values to which you aspire and which define your organization. Provided they’re legal and (see above) values that are part of an ongoing dialogue so there’s no confusion, it’s OK.

And when you reach the conclusion on any of the points above, you’ve also reached the time to fire someone. You should check with all the appropriate HR and legal folks to see what your exposure (legal, employee relations, bad headlines in a newspaper, etc. might be). You may make, I’d encourage some kind or smart timing decisions. Christmas Eve may not be the right time unless something is egregious, Friday’s and Monday’s are generally wrong, but once you’ve made the decision that someone is not going to work out the longer you take means that the conversation is harder to have.

No rush in the heat of anger, but don’t dawdle when you realize that someone is unwilling or unable to be a solid part of the team.

So there is a “good” time to fire someone, and with any luck it never feels easy or simple.

Just right.

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, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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