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July 25, 2006

The Art of Firing

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A few weeks ago I covered the topic of laying people off. In a sense, this is an easier process because it usually happens in bad times, and it doesn’t single a person out. A firing, by contrast, can occur in good times as well as bad times, and it’s highly personal.

I’ve fired people a few times in my career, and I hated everything about the process. I’m not sure I did it well when I did it, but I’ve thought a lot about how it should be done. Here is my best shot at “The Art of Firing People.”

  1. Consult impartial people. As soon as you have misgivings about a person, talk to one or two people who can give you an impartial appraisal of the situation: Is the person truly at fault? Is she a scapegoat? Are the people calling for her firing any better?

    (In my career, I have been blessed with three people who acted as my sounding board in issues like this. All were women because women are much better at this than men, but I digress...)

  2. Get professional advice. It’s a bad sign if you get too good at firing people because this means you’re doing it too often (see below, “Look in the mirror.”) As soon as you begin the process of devising an action plan to prevent a firing or you think it’s necessary to fire a person, consult someone who understands employment law. This is usually a human resources person, but it could also be outside legal counsel if you don’t have a human resources person.

  3. Search your soul. You should be able to articulate exactly what you think is going wrong. Could it be your fault? Have you established clear goals? If sales were going well, would we be having this discussion? The most telling question you can answer is:

    Are you (and the rest of the folks who are calling for the employee’s termination) judging his results against your intentions?

    For example, are you judging his sales results against your intentions to ship the product on time? In a perfect world, you would do the opposite: Judge the employee’s intentions against your results. In a realistic world, you would judge his results against your results. Unfortunately, the only people who usually receive the benefit of the doubt are the people calling for his termination.

  4. Give people a second chance. I don’t care if you live in an “at will” state in which you can terminate anyone at any time or what the search of your soul revealed, it is still immoral to fire people without helping them understand what they need to improve and providing the opportunity to do so.

    There is a line of reasoning that goes like this: “Nobody ever got fired too early...don’t put off a difficult decision because everyone is wondering why you’re keeping the bozo around...you should have fired him long ago.”

    I believed in this “rapid fire” theory until I saw a management team act like piranha attacking a drowning calf when it considered firing an employee. No one wanted to give the employee the benefit of the doubt and a chance to turn the situation around. Luckily, the CEO interceded and kept the employee; subsequently, the employee turned into a great contributor.

    There are three problems with rapid-fire firing: first, it may not be the employee’s fault that things aren’t going well. Second, the employee can improve—people do change. Third, although some employees may rejoice, the smart ones will be thinking, “So this is how this company works. There’s no warning. If you’re not popular, you get taken out.”

  5. Document everything. Ideally, you’ve already got a paper trail describing the employee’s job performance but the moment you think that they might be fired, start keeping detailed records. There are two reasons to do this. First, frankly, to cover your ass. Second, writing things down forces you to clarify your thoughts. When you read what you’ve written, it should be obvious that you’re doing the right thing.

  6. Do it yourself. You probably hired the person. Even if you inherited the person, you managed him. So you fire him. This isn’t something you can delegate or evade. Conduct a brief (fifteen minutes maximum) one-on-one meeting and tell the person your decision. Be as calm and rational as possible. Do not alter your approach even if (or, more accurately, especially if) the person isn’t calm and rational.

  7. Be firm. Never go into a “final” conversation thinking that if it goes well, you might not fire the person. Decide and then implement. If you get talked out of it, the odds are that you’ll simply fire the person later. However, don’t confuse being firm with being mean. You should be firm in your decision, but kind in how your decision is communicated and implemented.

  8. Don’t be guilted into anything. For example, a common request is to provide job references. Don’t promise anything like this because you’re feeling guilty. Your personnel department can provide a reference—like the dates of employment—but that’s all you should commit to do. You can always decide to do more later, but you can’t do less than what you committed to do.

  9. Show people the door. The day you fire someone should be the last day that person is in the office. This is even more true for firings than layoffs. There is very little to gain by having a fired person hang around for a few days or weeks, and there is a lot to lose: ill will, sabotage, and theft. Give the person a chance to collect their personal items and data from their computers and then get keys, delete accounts, and change passwords.

  10. Don’t disparage the victim. There are three good reasons for this. First, it’s the classy thing to do, and you want to show the remaining employees that you have class. Second, you could be tipping the karmic scales to be on the receiving end of the sword the next time. Third, the person you’re firing could end up in charge of purchasing at your biggest customer—as my mother used to say, “Don’t shiitake where you eat.”

  11. Look in the mirror. Ideally, the situation should have never come to this. You should have hired the right person. You should have set and communicated the right goals. You should have provided course corrections. Some of the “fault” probably belongs to you. It’s too late for the case at hand, but it’s not too late to prevent this from happening again, so take a good, long look in the mirror.


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» The Art of Firing from Futurelab's Blog
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Comments

zerobarat says
"I believe it should be more than that, the organization should provide training to do so, don’t you think?"

zero are you kidding? Either I've been a consultant too long or have just become jaded but I've usually found that employees who wait to be approached and then ask to be trained or wait for me to offer training to 'realize their potential' without any initiative on their part rarely develop into someone significant within an organization.

Personally if I'm approached about something and told I need to improve I'd be all over it. Expecting my company to train me on my shortcomings is something I've seen replicated over and over in city, county, state and federal governments but rarely in vibrant organizations. Some organizations have ongoing training but people within those know their shortcomings and are self-training before ever getting approached by a supervisor.

How about firing people for any old reason?:
Don't like the employee
Employee smells
Tax benefit by firing employee
Bonus if someone gets fired
Firing is just good for business (churn)
What states do the previous posters live in?
Just fire, no reason needs to be given. (at-will)

Thanks for this. It inspired me to write "Three things an Employee needs to Succeed" http://thesmallbusinesscoach.com/blog/2006/08/11/what-an-employee-needs-to-succeed/

I got fired from my first real job - and I can tell you, the process was nothing like the 10 steps you created here. First, it was personal, not business: I was fired because the top guy (founder, majority stock holder and CEO) couldn't fire the guy I worked for (founder, minority stock holder and VP). They hated each other (but needed each other) and I was cannon fodder/collateral damage. Second, the reason given for me being "let go" had nothing to do with performance (two week earlier got a rave review and big raise), nothing to do with interaction within fellow co-workers, customers, vendors, etc. (was the employee of the month and featured in their company newsletter). The reason provided was "you know how Ed is..."

Now, I'd like to say that this company, because of the way it was run by this president/ceo went down in flames a few years later. The reality is that the founders shared in a multi-billion dollar IPO and became very wealthy. Oh Well!!

I've never fired someone, but I suppose it's one of the most difficult activities for every manager. Thanks for your post - I'll try to remember all the advice, in case I'll have to fire somebody.

Btw - there is an interesting podcast about firing at Manager Tools (http://www.manager-tools.com/2006/02/how-to-fire-someone-well-almost/)

Ah, but shiitakes are so good to eat!

I am frequently asked about firing vs. laying off myself, and I agree whole-heartedly that firing someone is much harder to do than laying them off. There are big differences in how this plays out in larger vs. small companies.

When I owned my own small company, firing a person was quick to do but was difficult because of how personal it is. I currently work for a large company where the amount of paperwork involved in firing someone makes the process very difficult, but the final act of terminating the employment is not as hard because performance issues have already been discussed ad nauseum with 3rd party observers (HR).

Layoffs, in contrast, are also harder in a small company, particularly when you are the owner. It is 100% your fault that you overextended the company, so you have to take accountability for what you are doing. In a large company, it is fairly impersonal and you can blame someone else for allowing the financials to become inbalanced and you are just the messenger.

What I like about this post is that you really revealed your own development in thinking about this topic. It's good to see the end product of a lot of thinking and lessons learned the hard way, but I think it's even more helpful to see that all the spit and polish was preceded by mistakes and ideas that didn't hold up in practice. Thanks!

@ #4: ” it is still immoral to fire people without helping them understand what they need to improve and providing the opportunity to do so.”

I believe it should be more than that, the organization should provide training to do so, don’t you think?

Good points all, Guy.

It is never a fun thing to fire someone, but it does help to know that in the long run, if someone is really not performing well in your company, it is most likely not the place for them to do their best work. Being fired could be the catalyst they need to take charge of their career. It certainly doesn't guarantee they won't be laid off again, but it feels very different to get the axe from downsizing rather than poor performance.

And in case you haven't tuned in, Jack Welch's ranking system, often used to justify terminations, is being called to the table by Fortune magazine:
http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/get_a_life_blog/2006/07/fortune_admits_.html

9a. In the process of giving people a chance to get data from their computer... Bring in a trusted IT guy and the three of you sit in front of the computer. (1) Have employee identify and copy business critical documents including e-mail to a server. (2) Help employee identify and copy personal documents including e-mail to a DVD. (3) With employee present, after business and personal files are saved, wipe the disk clean with a low-level format. This will assure everyone that no damning or embarrassing e-mail or financial passwords or whatever are lying around for the next owner of the computer to discover. Unless there's anything clearly horrible and illegal like child porn or next week's Al Queda plans, it's forgotten, forgiven, and never discussed. Period.

Hey, don't forget the art of firing a client!! It's terribly important to know when your client is abusing you and you need to end the relationship and move on, in spite of losing the account. Best yet if, by some miracle, you can pull this healthy move off and retain enough goodwill to still either get a reference, testimonal or referrals!

Wow, just in time to answer some of the basic questions I had not read. For example, Get professional advice, that is something many people do not do, in my experience. Another important thing that I have not done, and I am in the process of confronting the person, is to document everything. Usually, when you comfront somebody, you let feelings get in your way and you do not accomplish your main objective, which is to let the person know how you really feel about his actions affecting business.

Having the misfortune to be in this situation a few times recently, I'd add something I've learned: when you have an inkling, a feeling or a sense that there is something wrong, get right into it. Don't wait or allow yourself to be reassured. Go into the situation that sends up a red flag and get to the bottom of it. I've waited in these cases and they always bloom into a bigger problem. If you don't wait two things will happen. YOu'll send a message that you're actually paying attention and you may give the employee a chance to redeem themselves before it gets to the point where firing them is essential.

Guy,
this is one of your most thoughtful posts, ever. It's post such as this that keep me coming back to your site.
Curmudgeoningly yours,
Jim Forbes

Think that one should leave or fire in a good light. I think that it's important never to burn bridges. Anyway, I do hope to be in Donald Trump's position and say, "You are fired!" in style.

Thought-provoking and thought-through. A situation is possible through where the hirer/ manager hired under specific directives linked to specific (read: Head Office) market projections, which did not match reality on the ground. As a manager who fired (laid off, some would say) more people than the years in my age at the time (24), I learnt an early management lesson. Never allow someone else to dictate hiring numbers to you esp. if you are the hiring manager. I lost so much weight with guilt and suppressed anger that it took me 2 years to recover. Some of those let go stayed in touch and I counselled them in personal capacity; some held it against me for a long time. But all understood that I was not the reason why they were out of a job. Any comments?

If only my previous employer had known what you know, he wouldn't be my former employer ;)

Great stuff, as always, thanks.

Is is nice to know that at least someone values people in the world of enterprise chief executive officers.

Very good advice. It seems that after so many years of people firing each other, people have learned more from the Donald "You're Fired!" than from the years of management experience.

As usual (well, mostly ;-) an excellent post. Which, obviously, rings a bell to me. Actually, two.
First one, I've been in the manager position several times in my career, including with my own firm : hiring people is not easy, firing is even more difficult. The last time i have had to fire someone, was two years ago. A young guy who was dreaming of cars' tuning and was losing his time in this Telecoms firm... I spent half a hour to go through all the options with him, explaining him what he should do to make his dream real. Guess what, he's happy working at his uncle' s garage now...
Now, the other bell ringing. My turn : have been fired after 6 weeks only at the newly created position in this former start-up now subsidiary of a US firm. My fault : i've done more in 6 weeks than my boss in 6 months ! I will send him the URL of the post ;-)

_Marc

Excellent post. Yes, but IMHO you missed step "0"!

http://www.salas.com/weblogs/archives/001257.php

And how about giving them a Personal Outplacement Program?

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