Over the course of the past 10 years I’ve probably hired close to 100 people. Of those 100 employees, I’ve had to fire six.
I know it’s six because I remember every single firing as is if it were yesterday. I remember precisely how I felt, where I was, what the weather was like that day, the script I followed and the reaction of the individual on the receiving end of the bad news.
I fully recognise that I wasn’t the injured party in any of these situations, and I certainly don’t expect any sympathy, but those six meetings were undoubtedly the worst six days of my professional life.
The idealist in me still believes that we can build a company culture and hiring process that ultimately eradicates the need to remove people. That will always be my goal.
However, the pragmatist in me recognises that as the business evolves and grows, in some cases we might encounter situations in which the person we hired to do a job two years ago isn’t the right person to do a job today. In these situations, it’s best for the company and the individual to part ways.
I’ve been thinking deeply about how best to handle how to fire people, and how to mitigate its negative ramifications — both for the individual being fired, and the company at large.
This is more of a framework with which to approach the process rather than a playbook, as every situation is different and every individual must be treated as an individual. But there are some principles and ways of thinking that seem to me to be universally applicable:
Ensure the news isn’t a surprise. This is probably the most important principle, and it’s not one I’ve done a particularly good job of following historically. If news of a decision to remove someone is met with complete surprise – both for the individual, and more widely in the company – something’s gone wrong. It’s critical to lay the groundwork with the individual by clearly communicating the ways in which he / she isn’t performing to the required level, and giving time for that to be addressed. Ultimately, firing someone should be last the resort.
Don’t expect everyone to see the full picture. I confess to getting frustrated when I hear grumbles of discord and resentment amongst the staff in response to one of their colleagues being shown the door. My instinct is one of defensiveness. ‘But they don’t get it!’, I think to myself. ‘If only they knew what he / she earned, and how little he / she was contributing!’’. This line of thought is unhelpful. I must remind myself that there will be a human reaction to someone leaving, and it will raise questions for people about the security of their own position. That’s totally natural and understandable. The challenge is to acknowledge this, allow for some grieving and offer reassurances that this was a unique situation and not indicative of a wider issue with the fundamentals of the business.
Be as honest as possible about the rationale. I think there’s a temptation to dress-up firings as something a little different from what they really are. It’s a bit like ending a relationship, and being tempted to roll with the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cliché. For the individual in question, providing clear, honest feedback and thoroughly explaining the rationale is the fairest approach, and the best way to ensure he / she is setup as best as possible for a future role. Similarly, the internal comms around a removal should be as honest as possible without compromising the individual in question. It’s shit news. Don’t try to shine the shit. Everyone will see through it, and you’ll be perceived as disingenuous.
Do it with humanity. It should go without saying that you’re dealing with someone’s livelihood, as well as someone’s ego. It will be a bitter pill, and it might be personally devastating. I do everything I can to be sensitive to that. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, and given the opportunity to part company with dignity.
Remember one’s responsibility to the individual, and his / her career. If we hire someone and it doesn’t work out from our perspective, I feel a keen sense of responsibility to that individual and his / her career. The fact that it didn’t work out is usually to some extent a result our failing as an organisation: the hiring process let us down and we didn’t do enough to proactively manage and support the individual in question to perform at the level we needed. With this in mind, it’s critical to recognise our responsibility to the individual and his / her career. This will be a significant setback. I therefore try to provide candid feedback on performance, highlight areas of real strength and areas of weakness, make introductions to people in my network who I know to be hiring people with that skillset.
Thankfully I’m still very inexperienced in this process, so I welcome any feedback or thoughts on strategies and approaches you’ve found to be helpful.