A few years ago I was asked to coach a manager through firing four employees in one afternoon. Going into it the manager was anxious and afraid. Four hours later, she left work completely exhausted, but with her dignity intact, and the dignity of her four ex-employees intact. A month later she met one of them in the grocery store. The ex-employee approached her, gave her a hug, and thanked her for how she conducted the firing.
Employers inevitably need to let employees go. Many employers approach this situation in a way that shows empathy and respect to the employee. But when terminations aren’t approached the right way, former employees end up bitter and hurt the company’s employer brand.
Five Common Mistakes Leaders Make when firing an employee
Compassion without accountability
Employers often give too many chances without clear performance targets and consequences. Too many second chances without measurable and sustained improvement sends the message that the company doesn’t care about performance and quality standards.
Empty threats without support
Threatening employees using ultimatums without the necessary support and resources to learn and grow is pointless. It sends the message that the company doesn’t really care about or develop their employees.
Lack of Openness
Employers often shut down or shut off emotionally during a firing, supposedly for self-protection or because they are afraid of being vulnerable or breaking some HR rule. Big mistake. Firing somebody is intensely emotional and it’s OK to express empathy, discomfort, and caring. Of course, maintaining control over emotions is key, but avoiding them altogether sends the message that your company is cold and uncaring.
Lack of Resourcefulness
Employers often don’t engage the employee in finding the best exit plan or solution. Firing someone is hard for both parties, and working together to find the best creative solution can ease the burden on both. Balance sticking to your protocol with joint problem-solving. For example, your protocol may say the employee has 24 hours to get their things packed up. How and when this happens can be negotiated. The more rigid you are, the more likely you will be perceived as uncaring and vindictive.
Lack of Ownership and Responsibility
How many times have you heard a boss say, “You’ve left me no choice but to fire you.” or “I have no other option.” This is a lie. Bosses have the authority and responsibility to let someone go, or not. Blaming the decision on the employee is a copout.
The employee is responsible for their behavior, and you are responsible for your response. Period.
Crossing this line of responsibility undermines your credibility and authenticity.
A Four-step Process for Avoiding Costly Firing Mistakes
One way to avoid these mistakes is to use a simple formula for the firing process. This formula operationalizes our signature process of compassionate accountability and can be applied in performance conversations leading up to the firing, for the actual firing conversation, as well as beyond. The formula is Open-Resourceful-Persistent-Open.
Open – honestly share your feelings and show empathy for the employee in this difficult situation
Resourceful – be a resource, but don’t rescue by giving unsolicited advice or information the employee has not requested
Persistent – be clear about the non-negotiable boundaries or policies at stake, without resorting to threats and intimidation
Open – check in with yourself and the employee; how are you doing? What’s their perspective?
O: I am angry about how things are going and want to talk with you
R: You have been late four times this month and as a result your team has fallen behind on project deadlines. What ideas do you have for changing this?
P: Our policy states that five absences in a month will result in termination. I will follow through on this, and I am committed to supporting your efforts to make a change.
O: How do you feel about this?
O: I can imagine you’ve been worrying all day about this meeting. It’s awkward.
R: We are downsizing our department by 10% due to budget deficits. I have decided to let you go, and am happy to share relevant details if you are interested.
P: My decision is final.
O: This is hard because I care about you and your family.
O: I can see how angry you are.That’s OK.
R: What questions do you have about the exit plan?
P: I am committed to working with you to find the best possible exit plan.
O: How are you doing?
By adhering to the O-R-P-O process, you can balance compassion with accountability and avoid getting into drama with yourself, your employee, and your company.