Learning to Fire Well

Yes, Managers, There is an Art to it!

I’ve received many calls lately from people who have been “managed out” of their positions. They have been told “your job is being eliminated” or “we no longer need your services” or “we are downsizing or rightsizing” or “we are moving in a new direction”. Whatever the euphemism the company chooses to use, the fact is that they were fired and asked to leave their current employment.

This is a fact of life, and it has happened to many professionals at some point in their career. It can also happen when the company is bought, merges, runs into financial difficulty, or has to close their doors, but somehow in those scenarios, it feels just a tad less personal.

When it’s personal, and it’s someone’s career, and they’ve invested a great deal of emotional, physical and mental energy in their job, the stories I hear about how the managers handled the firing are nothing short of hair-raising. Yes, they might have HR in the room, but unfortunately, they don’t leverage the skills of HR and, instead, choose to deliver the message on their own. I believe a senior level professional should know how to fire with professionalism and grace, and not leave the ex-employee telling stories about just how awful their “exit” from the firm was thanks to the manager’s poor approach.

So, if you are in a position of having to fire someone, now or in the future, here are five tips to hone your skills and be a bit more professional and tactful:

  1. Be sure that everyone around the person doesn’t know before the individual knows they are being let go. The more people who know, the less able you are to keep it under wraps. It is disrespectful to someone who is losing their job to have others, who may be their peers or subordinates, know in advance. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you need to give bad news to and ask yourself how you would like to be treated in a similar scenario.
  2. Let the person know that you have appreciated their contribution and get the facts right. One person told me their new boss botched their last name, another told me the boss lost track of how long they’d been at the firm, and another told me the boss couldn’t remember what location they were in (they were remote). Come on – when someone is about to lose their livelihood, show some respect by getting things right! Yes, you might have to take 15 minutes in advance to review some facts and data, but it’s worth your time to do so.
  3. Have some compassion. It’s actually okay to say, “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.” The cold fish, facts-and-data approach makes it very distasteful on the receiving end. Recently someone told me their former boss relayed the news as if it were a morning news report: “Your position is eliminated. Your last day will be Tuesday. You will be allowed to retrieve your personal belongings.” I have spent enough time with HR, and have fired enough people, that I know you can’t get into a long discussion about the why’s and wherefore’s of how sorry you are, but show some humanity. You CAN say, “I’m very sorry about this but it’s an unfortunate fact of life in our business right now. Let me go through some of the specifics so you’ll understand exactly what’s happening; stop me if you have any questions.” Sometimes a simple preface can help soften the delivery.
  4. Be humble. Guess what, as a firing manager next time around it could be you! One of my colleagues was actually the HR person delivering packages to people. Thankfully in her case, she was one of the most humble and compassionate people you’d ever want to meet, but when she finished handing out severance packages she’d worked weekends to put together, her boss said, “Wait, there is one more. Here you go!” You never know when you are going to be on the receiving end. The Golden Rule is so important here: Don’t gloat. Don’t hustle the person out of your office so you can get on to the next thing. Don’t read emails while you are talking to them. Be humble and human.
  5. Remember, they are going to get another job somewhere; think about how you want them to talk about you in their next role. When we were kids around the dinner table, my mother – who had a big job in a bank for decades – used to tell us to be careful how we treated those who worked for us, because we never knew when we’d turn around and find that subordinate to be our boss! Being in this industry as long as I have, I’ve seen many people move from position to position in different companies. Don’t be nice just because you might need something from someone someday (although if that works for you and helps you to modify your behavior, go for it!); instead, do it because it really is the right thing.

If you are part of a company who prides itself on creating a culture of fairness and support, or you say you care about the human element when it comes to clients and customers, or you train people to be more consultative and relational in approach, or you put a strong emphasis on hiring the “right” people for your firm – then make sure you carry this through when it comes time to fire, too. Any firm can look good when there is only good news to share; it’s when you need to do the difficult things that true leaders actually emerge.