Last month I wrote about hiring the perfect employee. But what do you do when you make that bad hiring decision? At this point in my career, I’ve released over 1,000 people either through layoffs or terminations. While my physical resemblance to George Cooney is striking, I have no plans to be like his “Up in the Air” movie character.
What I have learned are ways to do it well. Here are six key points:
1. Don’t wait to fire: Once you’ve done what you can to help the person and have decided that he or she is truly not a fit for the organization, don’t wait to remove them. You don’t want to frustrate your good performers.
2. It shouldn’t be a surprise: If you are communicating performance results, attendance concerns, and company financial information, no termination should be a complete surprise.
3. Treat them with respect: Many years ago, a neighboring company pulled all of their employees together into a conference room and announced that the plant was closing. Employees were required to stay until a security guard came and escorted them out of the room, collected their possessions and then off the premises. When I interviewed them, even years later, they were still angry about how they were treated.
4. Don’t blame the person: The employee being terminated is going to be feeling bad enough already. Don’t point out their weaknesses as failures, but do explain why they aren’t a good fit for the organization.
5. Let them blame you: You aren’t going to win an argument with the person at this point, so why try? Let them state their opinions.
6. Put the reason for the termination in writing: They say the average person retains only 10% of what they hear. I would argue that number is even lower when the previous words were “You’re being let go…” Give the employee something to refer to when they get home. More importantly though, draft the letter as though you were writing it to a plaintiff’s attorney. If you carefully explain that the employee is being terminated because this was the fourth sexual harassment complaint filed against them in a 12 month period, few attorneys are going to be interested in taking the case.
The majority of people remain professional throughout the process. In fact, many times, it’s our own anxiety about having the meeting that drives the process over the edge. I had one forklift driver who knew she was going to be laid off. She came into the glass office where I was doing layoffs and she was carrying a large cardboard axe. She handed it to me before throwing herself on the desk. Realizing she thought I was the executioner, I pretended to use the axe to “take off her head.” Several years later I received a thank you note from her stating that she had gone back to school, gotten her degree in accounting and that she loved her new career.
As difficult as the process may be, many times it leads to good things for the person and helps to motivate them to find a spot that really is a great fit.