The Art of Firing

Originally published
Originally published: 9/1/2006

It's one thing to lay off people, but quite another to fire someone.

I've fired a few people 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, from that experience, is my best shot at "The Art of Firing People." 

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've acted as my sounding board in difficult personnel situations like this. All were women because I think women are much better at this than men — but I digress.) 

Get professional advice. It's a bad sign if you are 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 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.

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 you 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. 

Give the person 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 still is 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. Nobody wanted to give the employee the benefit of the doubt and a chance to turn the situation around. Luckily, the CEO interceded and the company 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." 

Document everything. Ideally, you've already got a paper trail describing the employee's job performance. However, the moment you think about firing someone, 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.

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. 

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. 

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 later to do more, but you can't do less than what you committed to do. 

Show the person the door. The day you fire someone should be the last day that person is in the office. This is even more important 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.

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." 

Look in the mirror. Ideally, the situation should never have 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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