Is there a good way to fire someone?
Probably not, but there are ways that are respectful, and others that are cruel. Or stupid. And yes, you can go too far trying to be "kinder and gentler" -- in situations when it puts you or the company at risk of a lawsuit.
As a senior executive, particularly one running a highly seasonal and cyclical business, I found myself in this situation a lot. I've listed a few do's and dont's from my own personal experiences below.
- Directly participate. It is disrespectful to the employee, and cowardly to avoid the termination just because it's going to be difficult. You owe it to the person to be there, and not just delegate the dirty work to HR or someone else. When you look back on these traumatic events, participating goes a long way to allowing you to maintain your self-respect.
- Be honest, up to a point. Firings, because they have a huge impact on people's lives, can become the focus of legal action. Make sure you tell the employee why they are being fired -- exactly what you would say in court -- but try to keep things general enough that you aren't feeding the person amunition for a complaint. By being honest, you're giving the person being fired the insight they might need to avoid a repeat of the situation with a future employer.
- Be generous. A fair and reasonable separation package is certainly one element of that. Your personal assistance (contacts, recommendations, etc.), if appropriate, is also important. The employee is probably going to have a tough time for some months ahead, both financially and emotionally. Do what you can to east their suffering.
- Use a downturn as an opportunity to clean house. Select your weaker contributors when things go south, even though their performance might not ordinarily have warranted termination. It is your best opportunity to strengthen your team.
- Document. Sooner or later you're going to get sued for wrongful termination. Make sure you've got what you need to justify your actions.
- Suprise the employee. If the person is surprised they're being terminated, then something broke down somewhere in the process. If the situation is egregious (theft, assault), then any semi-intelligent person would understand why you would go directly to termination. On lesser problems that have festered over time, there should be a history of discussions concerning the key issue.
- Let the employee hang around afterward. Even if the termination is justified in the employee's mind, they are likely to still be angry. There is no upside to letting them stay at the office (or factory), and pollute others with "their version" of the "truth". On very rare occassions, I've violated this rule, but only with employees I thought I knew extremely well, and believed I could count on their professionalism. Even then, on two occassions, it bit me.
- Refer to anything related to a protected class. Be extremely careful what you say. You're not firing the person because of their age or race (I certainly hope not, anyway!), but people are looking for clues that this is exactly why it's happening. An innocent statement ("You're too slow getting things done," for example) can sound like it is age, race or gender discrimination to the recipient ("They fired me because I'm too old to move quickly").
- Cross previous precedents. If you paid out a previous employee's vacation on termination, don't withhold the same from the next termination without a very good and clear reason. This is another mistake that will likely land you in court. Consistent rules applied consistently are your defense.
- Trickle out cuts over time. When the terminations are related to a business downturn, make sure to cut fast, cut deep, and try to avoid going back to the well. It is better for everyone, especially the "survivors," to have it happen once and early. Otherwise employees live in an environment of fear, waiting for then next axe to fall.
While nothing said above will make firings easy, if you follow these guidelines, at least you will: maintain your own self-respect, complete the firings with the maximum amount of compassion possible, and cause the least amount of damage to the organization due to lawsuits and ongoing terror.
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If you enjoy the ideas presented in my blog posts, then check out my novels. Corporate Thrillers LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of business.