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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Firing People

A few weeks ago BusinessWeek had an interesting article on firing people, pointing out the legal risks associated with terminating employees. Here are the things you need to know about firing that BusinessWeek didn’t mention.

5 Kinds of Firings
Let’s start at the beginning. In my experience, there are five kinds of firings:

  1. Firing someone due to poor performance. As the BusinessWeek article points out, this one requires all sorts of documented conversations with the employee explaining how the employee is failing.
  2. Firing someone due to “gross misconduct.” This is more obvious and doesn’t require much in the way of conversation: it’s usually something like catching the employee stealing from you.
  3. The scapegoat firing. This is like a combination of #1 and #2 except it’s usually done in reaction to extreme negative press or publicity about something going on in the business. You fire a scapegoat and hope that this will defuse the problem. Sometimes the press does the documentation of poor performance for you.
  4. The “you don’t fit my direction and goals” firing. This one is so soft that most people don’t know they’re being fired; it’s more a polite suggestion that the employee would do better elsewhere.
  5. The workforce reduction or “reduction in force” (RIF). Although this isn’t firing per se, it accomplishes the same thing. Most work force reductions give managers an easy way to eliminate poor performers without having to go through all of the documentation headaches of #1. But then again, in some countries there are stringent legal requirements if you reduce “redundant” employees this way.

Firing is Like a Breakup, Sort of
Firings are sort of like breaking up with your girl/boyfriend; you were in a long-term relationship and now you’re not. The logic behind the decision is similar to the logic you go through in breaking up in a romantic relationship. You think to yourself, “Do the long-term pluses outweigh the long-term minuses?” If not, then you think about breaking up.

Most people who face a firing decision think that the decision is more clear-cut, but it’s not – not even in cases where the employee is stealing from the company (I’ve heard of companies who tolerate low levels of theft as sort of an off-the-books compensation program.) No employee is entirely bad, just like no girl/boyfriend is entirely bad. There was a reason the relationship started in the first place, and some of the positive aspects of that reason still exist. Inertia plays a role in both firing and breakup decisions as well; it’s a pain to have to start all over, and that pain justifies a certain amount of tolerance of the person’s negative traits. Personal situations further complicate both firing and breakup decisions; if the person is going through some tough times then you feel like you ought to cut him/her a little slack, at least for a while.

Of course there are also differences between a firing and a breakup:

  • Documentation isn’t required for a breakup.
  • There’s less opportunity to sue in a breakup (but palimony suits have certainly made it possible).
  • You can say “It’s not you, it’s me” in a breakup and people will sometimes believe it.
  • Monogamous relationships force you to break up with one person in order to be with another “better” person, while most businesses can hire additional employees to fulfill the needs left unanswered by a slacking employee.

How to Fire
I won’t describe the long drawn-out procedure that your HR department undoubtedly requires. The main rule of thumb is to document everything, even conversations with the employee that don’t otherwise have any written record. The document for each incident should note the date and time of the event, an overview of what happened, a recap of what you told the employee, and a summary of how the employee responded. If specific agreements were made (e.g., the project will be done by x date), then include that in the document as well.

For even better documentation, summarize the event in an email to the employee and ask the employee to reply if the employee sees any discrepancies. Of course the email doesn’t replace your own personal record of the event, which you need because the email won’t record things like the mood of the employee, the level of animosity or apathy shown, or other intangibles which should be recorded.

There is a tendency among many companies – particularly large companies – to use regular “performance appraisals” as a substitute for this documentation. I’m not a strong advocate of periodic performance appraisals, and I particularly hate the ones that are done once a year. I certainly recognize the need for feedback to the employee – I just don’t like the idea of waiting until an arbitrary date to provide that feedback.

In my opinion, it’s better to deliver feedback at the time of various milestones in the employee’s performance, for example when a project is completed (or abandoned), or when the employee has just made a contribution to business success. It’s a long-established fact in the performance improvement field that feedback must come right on the heels of the action that deserves feedback. To wait until later is unfair to both you and the employee.

Annual performance appraisals have been instituted as a poor bureaucratic substitute for the feedback that a good manager should provide. They’re better than no record at all, but it makes more sense for each manager to keep a file folder or word processing document for each employee and to record significant events and interactions that way.

Firing: Stage 1
Ok, so regardless of how you’ve documented the shortcomings of the employee, you’ve come to a decision that the employee should no longer work for you. What do you do? My suggestion is to try a few things before you resort to firing. First, it ought to already be obvious to the employee that you’re unhappy with the employee’s performance; if not, then why have you been keeping it to yourself? The most reasonable thing to do as a first step would be to have a heart-to-heart talk with the employee. Explain to the employee that you don’t think he/she is a good fit for the current position, and offer to help the employee find something elsewhere. I mean this sincerely, and so should you. I’ve never seen an employee who wasn’t good at something – it just might not be the thing you need. So if you can see the employee’s true strengths then you ought to help steer the employee toward a job (inside or outside your company) that builds on those strengths.

Some employees will immediately panic when confronted with this talk, but it’s really in your best interests – and the best interests of the employee – to push through the panic and try to get the employee to recognize the mismatch between the employee’s strengths and the job the employee is in. Some employees will promise to “turn over a new leaf,” “buckle down,” or some other appropriate cliché that signifies the employee’s interest in rectifying the performance problem. That might work if the problem is motivation (and even then it might only be temporary), but in most cases there’s nothing that the employee can do to make things better; a mismatch is a mismatch no matter how motivated the employee is.

I’ve had about an 80% success rate in getting poor performing employees to move to another job; the key is to put a deadline on the move so the employee doesn’t put it off. For the remaining 20% of problem situations I’ve had to go to the next stage.

Firing: Stage 2
At this point you’ve got an employee who hasn’t made any headway in finding a better fitting position, even though you’ve followed up regularly with the employee to get progress reports, and you’ve done everything you can to help the employee find a different place to work. It’s now time to get hard-nosed. This is when you impose what many companies call a “performance plan.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, I’ll explain it briefly here.

A performance plan is essentially a contract between the employee and yourself (representing the company) that lays out very clear, measurable criteria for success, and defines a very clear penalty for non-performance. Essentially the document says, “Do this or be fired.” The specifics of the performance plan will vary from person to person and from job to job.

For example, I had a customer support person who had clear responsibilities to be available to take calls during certain hours, but who was always an hour or so late in arriving. The performance plan called for him to check in with me when he arrived every day so I could be sure he was actually at work. This is a simple example; most performance plans are much more complicated, with deliverables tied to completion of certain project deliverables by certain dates at a certain quality level. The key to a successful performance plan is to have a plan with no loopholes; the success criteria have to be very tightly defined so that there’s no doubt whether or not the employee is successful.

One of three things will happen to an employee doing a performance plan:

  1. The employee will successfully complete the plan and (at least temporarily) be considered a good employee, or
  2. The employee will redouble his/her efforts to find a position with a better fit and will finally move to such a position, or
  3. The employee will fail at the performance plan and, according to the terms of the plan, will be fired.

One of the worst things that can happen is for the employee to work hard at successfully completing the plan but then fall back into old ways and go back to being a problem employee again. If this happens then all you can do is to put the employee on a plan again, although this time the plan can be much shorter. One way or the other the employee will either do the job or will leave.

How Not to Fire Someone
While I’m on the subject of firing, let me give you an example of how not to fire someone. I once worked with a company which was doing a round of lay-offs. The cuts were substantial, and it wasn’t at all clear who would stay and who would go. While senior managers called employees into one-on-one meetings to give them the news, other employees milled around discussing the situation. Then one of the waiting employees discovered that an over-eager security manager had already disabled the card keys of the employees who were going to be terminated. Immediately everyone went to the front door and swiped their card keys through the reader. What a way to find out you’re losing your job!

If You’re Fired
As difficult as it is to fire someone, it’s much harder to be on the other side of the desk and find out you’re losing your job. If it happens to you, remember that:

  • The fact that you’re a bad fit for your job doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. It just means that you haven’t yet found the ideal job for you. Don’t take it personally; just try to learn from the experience.
  • Losing a job is just like losing a loved one, and you’ll go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Let yourself grieve, try to avoid any sort of retaliation or lashing out (it will come back to bite you later), and give yourself a little bit of time before you start looking for another job. Interviews done right after being terminated won’t be a fair reflection of your talents and personality.
  • Don’t take the bad news out on your family and friends. Let them help you through the grieving process, and be kind to them even if you’re angry.

Are You Likely to Be Fired?
First off, recognize that if you’re higher up in the organization, if you make a lot of money, or if you have a very visible position associated with the success or failure of a key project, then you have a higher probability of being fired. The downside of high levels of success is correspondingly high expectations, and if you fail to live up to those expectations even for a moment then your job is too important for you to stay in it as a non-performer. You seldom see people in CxO positions who have been there for very many years; any lapse in performance will lead to being fired.

For those of you in lower level positions, here are some warning signs to watch out for. If you see any of these things happening then seriously evaluate your job alternatives.

  • A change in your boss’s attitude toward you, or a change in the level and type of communication between the two of you.
  • You miss clearly defined goals and objectives.
  • You start to tell lies to cover up problems.
  • Your office mates stop talking when you approach them, or they talk about you behind your back.
  • You get in public disagreements with your boss.
  • The press calls for you to be fired (rare, but more likely for government jobs).

Here’s the bottom line on being fired: do a good job, make sure you know who’s calling the shots and stay in their good graces, and have honest communication with your boss about your performance. Don’t worry about being fired; focus on doing the best job you can.

Specific Firing Issues for IT Organizations
Most issues relating to firing apply equally well to all types of organizations, but IT organizations have a few specific concerns. First, due to the technical skills and training required for IT jobs, IT jobs are less likely to be interchangeable; it’s not always so easy to just move someone else into a job. That makes the firing decision a more difficult one. You still have to ask yourself “Do the long-term pluses outweigh the long-term minuses?” but you also have to consider how long it will take to find a trained person or to train someone new. This is a particularly bad problem for small organizations in which there is little duplication of skills. For example, firing a person who provides support for a certain system may require you to leave the system unsupported while you’re finding a replacement and bringing the person up to speed.

If you find yourself in this situation, talk to the business users who are getting support from the soon-to-be-fired person. You’ll find that if you get their support for the decision then often they’re willing to tolerate a lower level of support during the transition to the new support person. In fact, you may find that they have had concerns about the support person’s fit for the job anyway but didn’t know how to broach the subject with you. Whatever you do, don’t blindside a support person’s customers by firing the person without their prior knowledge; the customers will see the action as a slap in the face.

“Firing” has a very negative connotation; the word “fire” seems to imply a violent act done in anger. But although the result of a firing is sudden, it’s only the culmination of events that have taken a long time to build to that sudden conclusion. The key to success in firing is to recognize it as an act of desperation: something you do when everything else has failed.

You can avoid firing by hiring the right people, motivating them well, and then giving them frequent feedback on how they’re doing. If you find that a person is not right for a job – because the job has changed, because the person has changed, or because the person didn’t live up to expectations – your best course of action is to try to move the person into a job that’s a better fit. That better fitting job might be inside your organization, somewhere else inside your company, or even somewhere outside your company. If you can’t help the person yourself, then at least have the frank discussion required to communicate the issues to the person.

No one wants to stay in a job that’s not a good fit, so in most cases you can help both the employee and yourself by moving the person elsewhere. If all else fails, then fire, but only as a last resort. A fundamental part of being a manager is looking out for your employees; firing should mean that you’ve exhausted all other possibilities.

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