CXO

3 things to think about before firing an employee

Firing someone is one of the worst tasks managers face. Here's how to be prepared for it.

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Image: iStock/AVAVA

In my years as a manager, I can't think of anything more distasteful than having to fire an employee. I have had to do this several times during my management career, and every time I had to do it, I was thinking about that "wanna get away" ad.

A colleague of mine who also has spent many years in management said the same. He recalled that his worst experience was having to fire a software developer who could not perform the job. It ended with the man getting down on his knees and grabbing my colleagues' legs. With tears streaming down his face, the man begged for his job. I could hardly stand to hear it.

While I have never seen a situation like the one my colleague experienced, I have had my share of firing situations where employees could be anticipated to be hostile or angry. In other cases, the process was relatively straightforward and ended amicably—and in at least one case, I felt relatively good after the firing, because the employee had been abusing others on the job and she had to go.

In all cases, firings are not easy. This is why it is very important to do them in an appropriate way if you are in the unenviable position of having to do them.

SEE: Employee termination policy (Tech Pro Research)
SEE: Employee termination checklist (Tech Pro Research)

There are three areas that you should prepare for as a manager before doing a firing: professional, legal and emotional.

Professional

Unless you are performing a firing because of an event that was entirely unanticipated (e.g., employee sabotage), you should have already been talking with the employee about poor performance or disruptive behavior long before you reached a decision that firing was necessary. If you have done these things, the employee already knows that they could be fired—and when you call them into a special meeting they'll expect that a firing is coming.

During the meeting, it's no time for small talk. You need to get directly to the point of the meeting (i.e., "Carl, as you know, you have been having difficulty completing your work on time since we first discussed it three months ago. I am sorry to have tell you that we just can't continue on this path any longer, and that I will have to let you go.").

Look the person directly in the eye, and give them a little time to respond. If there is a question about job performance or about the possibility of having "one more chance," you should have documentation at your fingertips where you can show the employee their record of non-performance, and why you have to move on for the sake of the project.

You should also be prepared to tell the employee what comes next. Do they need empty their desk immediately? Does they go to HR? Do they get escorted out of the building immediately, with the option of being accompanied back in later to pick up their belongings? These "winding down" details need to be clearly explained.

Finally, you need to express support of the individual. If there is a way to encourage them, do it. If there are resources such as career counseling or a job placement service that the company can provide so the individual can be aided to secure a new situation, offer it.

SEE: Severance policy (Tech Pro Research)

Legal

I once encountered a CEO who said he was "absolutely fearless" about doing any sort of firing, because he lived in an employment at will state.

Every US state except Montana has "at will" employment law—meaning that you don't need to have a reason to fire an employee. But the reality is, most places of work function with a "fire for cause" philosophy, which means you don't fire someone unless you have specific reasons that are documented and that support your justification for why the person should be fired. Because "fire for cause" is the de facto standard that most companies use, despite what the law says, firing meetings with employees should be carefully prepared for.

Equal protection, as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution's 5th amendment, which means that everyone should be treated equally and fairly, should also be adhered to. Most employers already have policies in their employee handbooks that address the rights of everyone to be treated equally and fairly, but if your company doesn't have these provisions documented in its employment policies, this is something that you as a manager should inquire about, in addition to inquiring about and familiarizing yourself with other employment policies that the company has in place. You'll also want to meet with HR, corporate counsel, or whoever might be involved with this, to ensure that what you are about to do is appropriate under company policy and the law.

I once had to fire a female manager who was bullying her employees and who was also inept at her position. She immediately accused me of discriminating against her because she was a woman. I was a new (and inexperienced) manager at the time. I knew enough to get help from HR before proceeding.

Emotional

Firing an employee can be as difficult on a manager as it is on an employee. Emotions can run very high in situations like this. As a manager, you have the responsibility of trying to help the very employee you have to fire through the process, and you also have to keep your own emotions in check.

During a meeting involving firing, maintain a professional demeanor. No matter what the employee says, even if it is personal and directed at you, do not take it personally. You cannot afford to, because you are the one who must guide both yourself and the employee through this most difficult of meetings.

This is easier said than done.

Before you meet with an employee whom you have to fire, take stock of your own emotions. Are you anxious yourself as you go into this meeting? (Most managers are—because few of us enjoy having to fire someone.) Do you think the employee has an explosive personality and could hurl some insults at you that earn your ire? Be prepared for this-and ask yourself if you will be able to handle the situation dispassionately. If there is any doubt in your mind, it is not out of line to ask an HR representative to also partake in the meeting with you.

Also see:

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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