Posts

Firing Employees: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Having been at the receiving end of being fired/outsourced (whatever it’s called these days), I’ve witnessed and experienced both good processes and bad ones. I’ll share my thoughts on what I feel like is good advice for what is arguably one of the most difficult things to do as a company owner or manager.  This post does not cover the subject exhaustively but it is meant to convey some of my perspective gained through experience to those that have never “enjoyed” the process and are suddenly put in a position of firing people without any personal experience or perspective on the topic.

There are three scenarios that usually occur. The first case is that the employee did something bad that warranted firing. This is not a normal case and I’ll pretty much ignore this since it is the most straightforward and one would feel much less sorry about the situation if the employee brought it upon themselves. The second case is that there is a business reason that forces the layoff, firing or whatever. This is a case where it is not the employee’s fault and at some level not the company’s either to some extent. If there’s not money to cover payroll, the payroll must be cut.  This case is similar to the third case below but is somewhat different since often multiple people are let go collectively but the humanity of the process still applies.

The third case is that the employee is trying to do their work but cannot perform satisfactorily. This is a very common issue and the one that I address below.

The Good

Firing anyone should be hard (unless the employee did something really bad). If you don’t find it hard to fire someone then you may need to look at who you are as a person. You or your company hired this person with the belief that they could do the work and if they gave it their best shot then you or your company bears some responsibility for the situation – you hired the wrong person and you are about to make this person unemployed. Just think about the conversation they will have with their spouse and children when they get home. Losing a job is not fun no matter what the circumstances so keep in mind what impact you are having on a person and his family.

Both parties should know it’s coming. That is to say that the employee should not be surprised that they are being let go.   They should have had several unsatisfactory reviews or at least some conversations about what they are not doing or doing wrong. They should know that they are not meeting expectations and that is the company’s responsibility to communicate that to the employee. If they get fired with no idea it’s coming then there’s bad management and bad leadership in the company.

Be sympathetic and do what you can to help them. Acknowledge that this is going to suck for them (a lot) and you feel bad about having to do this. Do not bring up anything about how this is going to suck for the company finding their replacement. Focus on the employee and ask how you or the company can help them transition into a new position. Can you write them a recommendation in any way? If so, offer. If not try to think creatively about something positive you could say about the person and offer to them as something that might help them find their next position.

If possible, offer some kind of severance pay — even if it’s only a week’s pay. When I’ve been given severance pay (up to a month’s pay) it said a lot about how much the company thinks of you as a human being and how much they acknowledge the suck of the situation (for you). Severance gives the fired employee a way to put a positive spin on an awful situation. They can say, “I got fired, but I got some severance. They didn’t have to do that so they must have liked me on some level.” The times when I got severance I departed with a positive feeling about the company and even decades later I continue to say good things about those companies.

Look at severance as a cost of generating good will within the community. Fired employees talk. A lot. To everyone in the tech community about the company, their regard for their employees and how they treat people. If the exit process is a good one and people are let go humanely then the reputation of the company improves in the community and local tech people consider their job postings. If the word gets out that the company treats their people awful then good luck hiring locally. Those companies are always hiring people straight out of college or from outside the community.

 The Bad

What has evolved into a somewhat standard (and how the hell did this happen?) is that the employee is called into a manager’s office and told the news and then escorted to their desk and watched while they clean out their belongings and walked to the door. This often happens on a Friday afternoon. And employees of a company all know what’s happening on Friday if the hatchet squad is on the prowl looking for heads to roll.

This “method” seems so wrong to me. I’ve seen this many times within departments in which I worked and had something almost like this happen to me. You are being treated like a criminal and it’s clear that they don’t trust you. Does the company hire criminals? If not then why treat people like criminals?  It’s clear they think you may harm the company (going Postal), again this is a degrading treatment and too often (for tech employees) not realistic.  I’ve been let go and locked out of my login, but at the same time, I had at least two or three other admin login accounts to network devices, firewalls, servers that were not locked out — so why act as if locking me out of my user account would prevent me from doing harm?  It does no real protection to the company network infrastructure and actually gives the fired employee an incentive to do harm if they were in any way inclined to do that.  It’s just nuts.  What would be more effective is treating people humanely so that they don’t want to do any harm.  Because if you give a person incentive to do harm, it’s likely they will be able to do it.  Whether it be to the network, or more likely, the company’s reputation on the street.

What’s weird is that when people quit they are often treated completely differently. They are usually given a transition time for a few days to a week to transition their work over to others, say goodbyes, etc. and treated very humanely.

If fired employees are treated humanely and given the option to take some time and transition out while doing the best for all sides it would help the company and the employee.

The best case I had was when I was given a week’s notice that I would be let go and I was given another month’s severance after that week was up. I still speak highly of that company.  They value their people and it shows.

The Ugly

I have not experienced this but I had a friend who described a firing method used in a local fortune 500 company that I still find hard to believe but I know this person and believe her.

For this particular company, when management decides someone will be let go they require all the people who work with that person to make a list of bad things to say about that person – issues they’ve had with their work, communications, or anything about how they work.

When the day comes the target employee is asked to come to a meeting and the firing squad (so to speak) is sitting around a table in a conference room and management makes each person read their list to the person being fired.

Then a security guard hands the ex-employee a box and escorts them to their desk to clean it out (while watching) and escorts them to the parking lot directly to their car and watches them drive off the lot.

Ouch.

Please share your experiences or thoughts on the firing process. I’d appreciate your perspective.