When Firing Someone, Focus On Those Who Remain
Firing is hard. It should be. First, it only happens because of a failure. A failure to hire the right person, a failure to train that person well, a failure to create the right motivational or managerial environment for that person or a failure of the person you hire to execute to expectations (note that 3/4 of these failures are those of the hiring manager or company, not of the employee). Second, it’s likely that you’ll be disrupting at least the life of the employee and, perhaps, the employee’s entire family. Unless the employee’s done something worthy of Charles Manson or Ken Lay, this factor has to come in to play. Third, you have to deal with a myriad of various legal and regulatory issues involved with firing someone, making sure that your ass is appropriately covered. Fourth, and most importantly, you have to put a tremendous amount of time, attention and energy in to making sure that those who aren’t being fired (read: everyone else) understand what has happened and how it effects them.
This last item, while frequently a neglected part of the firing process, is the most crucial part of it. If by firing a single person you negatively impact the performance of everyone who worked around them, then you’ve failed to achieve what you set out to do – make the organization better by virtue of removing that person from it. The reason why this part is so difficult and time consuming is that it is the most complex. You need to understand how the person being fired fit culturally in the organization and work within that space. Of course, if the person was universally hated, there is no work to do – you’ll be an instant hero and productivity will increase. If the fired employee was a respected member of the team or even just an average contributor though, you’ll have to deal with inevitable, fundamental and, often, unspoken questions:
- “What does this mean for me?”
- “Am I next?”
- “Is the company in trouble?”
- “Is this part of a layoff?”
- “What did the person do wrong? Am I doing the same thing?”
- You get the idea . . .
As soon as someone is fired, the lower levels of Maslow’s Pyramid rear their head. You’ll quickly be dealing with job and life security issues instead of the psychology of motivation and growth. It is always about “me.” The time to address these questions is before you fire the employee (that’s the planning, of course, not the actual communication which can only take place after the firing). If you try to clean up the mess after the firing, you may find yourself trapped in a maelstrom of issues that can take you a long time to unwind and may result in the loss of people that you hadn’t planned on.
To appropriately deal with this situation, as part of your pre-firing planning, you need to consider the organizational impact of the person leaving alongside the obvious process and legal issues. In this case, I like to get the easier process/legal stuff taken care of first:
- Map out the process of the employee’s separation from the company – terms of separation, severance (if any), the employee’s last day, transfer of company property, stock option exercise, etc.
- How you’re going to fill in for the employee’s responsibilities in the organization.
- Ready all legal paperwork required for the move.
After the easy stuff is taken care of, map out a plan of communication and action to address the fear and uncertainty issues that will remain after the person being fired is gone. Depending on the size of the organization, consider that you may not be able to handle this effort yourself. Decide first which people in the organization are the greatest influencers of others (including managers, of course) and communicate with them first. Since you cannot possibly talk to everyone you need to within the first hours or days after the firing, they will become your mouthpieces for the explanation of the situation. Time is of the essence, here. If you fire a person on a Friday, for example, you may not be able to communicate with everyone you need to, leaving them the whole weekend to ponder what happened and why. Do the deed early in the week so you have some runway.
Additionally, consider the people who will be the most adversely affected by the news. Prioritize who you need to speak with first, or who may need your personal attention, and make sure you speak with them as soon as possible. Often, the people at the top of this prioritized list will be the intersection of those that are the most important to your organization with those that may be the most sensitive to that particular employee’s firing.
In all communication, make sure that your explanation is consistent (yes, people compare notes) and is from the point of view of the people remaining with the organization – not your point of view or the that of the person who was fired. Put yourself in their shoes. It will not only help them through the situation, but it will get you additional brownie points. And don’t bail out and have a group/organization/company meeting about it. It’s impersonal and makes too big a deal about the action. Be subtle because the way you communicate is as important as what you communicate.
I’m not talking about a week of effort here (although the firing of a high-level person in a large organization may, in fact, take that much effort or more) – most often, it will only require a day or two of planning. In a small organization, perhaps even just a few hours. If you execute all this successfully, even the worst firing will be a small bump in the road. You’ll wonder why you worked so hard to set it up. Keep in mind that it was because you worked so hard at it that it became just a small bump in the road. If you think you can get away with less effort, consider how much a lost week of productivity from the whole organization will cost you. Sounds like a small amount of work now, eh?
Although this process may be easier for the firing of individual contributors as compared to managers, you need to take into account the fact that people come to work every day and build loyalty to an organization because of the people that they work with, not because of their particular job, or job function. In this sense, the firing of a popular individual contributor may have an equal, or even greater, impact on the organization than the firing of a manager.
By the way, this is obviously all true for layoffs too. Layoffs just require quite a bit more planning.