How to make firing someone cathartic for you and the one fired
Donald Trump may take perverse joy in scowling “You’re fired!!” on his mindless reality show, The Apprentice, but unremorsefully humiliating an employee is not a perk for being boss, it’s an imbecilic caricature of what a businessman should be.
The truth is that the process of involuntarily terminating someone’s employment can be distressing for both the terminator and terminated. Unless the firing is “for cause,” who among us can feel good about putting a person – usually with a dependent family – on the unemployment lines? What sense of fear and uncertainty washes over a person who comes to work in the morning with a job and goes home at night without one?
I was fortunate in my business career not to have to fire a large number of people before I learned how to do it the right way. The experience used to be just as traumatic for me as it was for the person being terminated. Even when it was clear that a person was not performing up to acceptable levels, I would fuss and fret, delay and rationalize the decision until it became an unnecessarily painful event for the employee and me.
The HR Rulebook Teaches the Legal Way to Fire, but not the Right Way
The beloved HR people and their loathsome lawyers feed you all the “dos and don’ts” when it comes to firing an employee, but these are just techniques and processes designed to ward off office upheaval and litigation. They will counsel you to do it yourself, do it in person, have a checklist, don’t sugarcoat your words, follow company procedure, document the process and, believe it or not, have a lawyer present.
These are all good recommendations when the intent is to protect the company and head off a lawsuit, but they also seem predicated on the assumption that the action will come as a complete surprise to the employee. Notably lacking in this scenario is any indication of compassion or concern for the employee. It’s no wonder, then, that the typical firing is so often a downer for all concerned to say nothing of the terrible message it sends to other employees.
My contention is that firing an employee does not have to be that way. Sure, it’s important to protect you and the company against unwarranted litigation over the firing, but it is also possible to fire someone with compassion and understanding that, at the very least, will take the edge off the process. Believe it or not, it may even be possible to make termination a positive experience for all concerned.
Two steps to successful firing
It was only after I learned two important principles that the process of terminating an individual’s employment became a palatable, if not positive experience.
First of all, if the person being terminated was surprised by my action, it was my fault. I deserved to feel bad. It meant that I had failed as a manager to consistently and effectively communicate my dissatisfaction – using specific examples – with the individual’s performance. I learned early on that people could not read my mind or even my body language concerning their performance on the job. It may have been clear in my mind that the individual was not doing the job, but unless I made my impressions very clear to the employee, I was failing in my responsibility and should not have been surprised that they were surprised when they were fired.
Once I understood and accepted this responsibility to the employee and the time came to sit down and pull the trigger on the firing, there was no surprise on the part of either party. I may not have looked forward to firing the employee, but I no longer felt guilty about the process.
The second principle to successful firing may seem counterintuitive, but it is perhaps the most important element to creating a positive environment in the entire process. I discovered that many individuals who deserve to be fired are actually relieved to be fired. I know that does not make a lot of sense, but it is true. I would fret and anguish over having to fire an employee, yet when the meeting came about, I was surprised at the sense of relief exhibited by many employees. It was as if they had been waiting – even wanting – for the event to happen.
What I learned was that most employees know better than anyone how they are performing in the job. When a worker is in over their head or is simply not motivated to do the job, they know it and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them. There is the uncertainty over how long they can continue to “fake it” and the anxiety wondering when they will be “caught” and held accountable. They are not happy in the job and this causes their effort to spiral downward even further. Of course, they are not going to raise their hand and advertise their failing, but they definitely are looking for a lifeline. Also interesting is the fact that the longer it takes for the boss to “liberate” them from the job, the less respect they have for the boss. And this creates unnecessary tension when the firing finally comes.
I came to understand that if the entire process leading up to and the actual firing itself is handled in an open, honest fashion and with compassion, then the actual firing of an employee can be a positive experience. Really, it can be. When the boss has done all that should be done to support, assist and communicate with the employee, they can be comfortable with their decision. From the worker’s perspective the burden and uncertainty of being in a job they know they are not or can’t do effectively is taken off their shoulders.
Showing Compassion Lessens the Conflict
In essence, once I learned to approach the firing process from the perspective of the employee it put me in parallel with their concerns, fears and feelings and went a long way toward making the termination process more cathartic than conflicting.
It is not always the case, but more often than not the situation of poor performance calling for termination is because a good person has been put in a bad job. Most good people want to do a good job, but they often find themselves in a job that does not fit their interests, talent or experience. This creates increasing anxiety and fear, driving performance even lower. However, when the boss comes to the under-performing employee more in the role of a liberator than an exterminator, there is more relief than regret.
My experience taught me that if I approached the firing process more as a supportive counselor than a bearer of bad news, the experience was always more positive than negative. I learned that the best approach was to be totally honest about their current performance being unacceptable – and this should not have been a surprise to them – but that I wanted to help and support them in the effort to find a new job – either within the company or outside.
Two things this approach did not include were washing my hands of the process by turning them over to HR for the usual prepackaged legalize “termination package” or suggesting that I would be less than honest if contacted by another perspective employer. But what I did promise was that I would help and support them in finding a new job that better fit their skills and interests.
It may seem fanciful to some, but by following this approach to firing someone, more often than not the person would thank me. Not for being out of a job, but for being out of a job that was more stressful for them than their lack of performance was for me. They respected and appreciated that I stood up and did what they should have done themselves. Such a reaction almost made me look forward to the joy of the next firing — even though I was not Donald Trump.