Thoughts on How to Fire Someone

2010 November 5
by mark

Termination is a macabre subject, and not one that I personally like to dwell on. But a couple of recent experiences have me thinking about what happens when someone is fired, and bring up a couple of points that you may want to consider when you have to deal with this issue.

Firing an employee is intended to solve a problem regarding that employee’s performance, their conduct, or the financial health of the company. But you also have to consider the impact that a termination may have on the rest of your organization. In most cases you can assume that the employee who is terminated has friends or at least colleagues at work who reasonably infer that the employee has been doing a valued job. If the terminated employee had been in your company for an extended period you can assume that their firing might generate a fair amount fear, uncertainty, and doubt regarding other employees’ beliefs about their own standing in your company. Any rational manager understands that they will be more successful if they have the hearts and minds of their employees. If you are rational and believe that, then when an employee is terminated, you need to quickly communicate a message to the rest of the staff as to what happened (it should be as simple as “Bob is no longer working with us”), some expression of gratitude for the work of the terminated employee (stretch the truth here a bit if necessary- after all, someone in the organization actually hired them to do valuable work), a statement of commitment to the remainder of the staff, and some reasonably accurate prediction of what everyone should expect in the future. Failure to do that, and quickly, will leave a void that will just as quickly be filled with negative speculation, along with lost productivity, lost respect for, and lost commitment to your company.

In cases where there is misconduct, and often when downsizing is necessary, a termination most likely needs to be carried out simply and expediently. In the case of poor performance, you might consider that there’s a good chance that you allowed the behavior to continue for some time without completely clarifying your missed expectations (you’re in good company with the rest of us who are conflict averse), and now you’re faced with the difficult problem of firing someone and not knowing if they might have been able to bring their performance to an acceptable level had you been absolutely crystal-clear about what your expectations were. So here’s the right thing to do: pick out the one, two, or three absolutely objective criteria that your employee must improve, clearly set the performance threshold, establish a time line (a relatively short one) for the employee to attain the threshold level of acceptable level of performance, and have that enormously difficult conversation with them to gain agreement on what has to happen if they are to keep their job. This can create a far better situation: you have done the right thing, the employee knows objectively what their unacceptable performance is and what they need to do to stay, and you’ll either end up with a sufficiently-performing employee, or an ex-employee who shared the responsibility for their termination.

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