These may be the most feared words in any corporation. Unfortunately, it has become a too often used phrase in American politics, intended to impart the image of a strong and decisive leader. But, if you are a competent manager you know that these words are the opposite – they are an admission of failure to be used rarely and humility. I write the following with the concern that some aspiring managers may fail to understand the significance of these words.
Great leaders attract the best people, have trust in them and receive trust in return. They build a team of collaborators who support one another and have very low turnover as a result. The words “you’re fired” may never be heard!
A Few Truths About Firing
First, two laws of human relationships:
If you want to be a good leader, you must first be a good human being! Your behavior reflects your values. Good human beings have good values, and if you have good values you treat others with dignity and respect. You will not gain respect if you are incapable of having respect for those whom you seek to lead.
Second, loyalty, like love, is gained when it is given. If you dismiss others easily, you will also be easily dismissed by others. If you demonstrate loyalty to others, you will likely gain loyalty in return. Loyalty is never “owed”, it is always earned.
Those of us who have been in positions of responsibility for any period of time have had to confront the unfortunate act of firing an employee. It is the single most unpleasant thing you will have to do as a manager. Why is it unpleasant? Because you know that you are inflicting pain on another human being, and if that is not painful to you, then you lack empathy, which is an essential quality of any leader.
Here are some rules of firing to consider:
- Hiring is more important than firing. If you hire well, you will fire rarely. Every firing is an admission that you did not do a good job of hiring the best people. The cost of replacing an employee is generally considered 150% of their annual compensation. When you must dismiss someone, you have incurred a significant cost to your organization.
- It is your job as a manager to develop, direct and lead your employees to the right behavior and performance and likely avoid firing. If you must fire someone then you must admit that you have either failed at hiring or failed at developing and directing that individual.
- Dismissing someone from your employment should never be a surprise to that person. Letting someone go is the last act in a process that, if done well, will correct most poor performance. This is an issue of justice! Yes, I said “justice.” It is unjust to be picked up by a policeman and thrown into prison without any knowledge of the crime. Likewise, it is unjust to fire someone who has not been given every reasonable chance to correct his or her poor performance. I go into this in some length in my course on Giving and Receiving Feedback. In short, here are some keys:
- Effective correcting and development solves most problems. You must be absolutely frank and honest with the individual, sharing the exact behavior you see as problematic and instructing them in the desired behavior.
- You must then give him or her feedback in very short order as to whether they are succeeding or failing to conform to the desired behavior. Give them the facts, the data on their performance. Give them feedback again.
- Reinforce effort and progress, not merely the final desired behavior. Human beings learn through behvior shaping, successive reinforcement of approximations toward the desired performance.
- You must go through this feedback/learning cycle several times in order to establish that the individual is either incapable or unwilling to perform. Only after repeating this cycle several times should you then warn the individual that if their behavior does not change, then you will have no choice but to terminate their employment.
- These steps of correcting, feedback, and warning must be documented in writing to both the individual and to your human resource manager. In most countries there are significant legal issues that may arise from firing.
Assuming there is still failure, consider how you go about firing someone because that act has an impact on many others in the organization.
And When You Do…
- NEVER fire someone in public or humiliate them in public in any way. If you do, you will not be trusted by others and you will lose their loyalty.
- NEVER fire someone by twitter, email or other electronic means. Let me put this in the bluntest terms I can think of: If you aren’t man enough (or woman) to sit down and confront the individual face-to-face, you do not deserve to be in any leadership position.
- When you sit down with the individual you will remind them of the previous feedback and the final warning. You will then give them the facts on their performance and why it is not acceptable.
- Now have empathy for the individual. Help him or her consider that they are still a good person, but they simply do not fit this job. Surely, there is some other job where they will be more successful and where they will be happier. Ask if they have considered a different position. You are in the power/parent position, so help them to find a path toward their own success. In the rare times I did have to fire someone, I have had them come back to me and thank me for how I let them go and how I guided them. Believe it or not, firing can be a positive experience for the individual.
I was CEO of a consulting firm for twenty years. When we hired employees I told them that no one had ever been fired for making a mistake. I made mistakes, we all made mistakes. You could only be fired for two reasons: First, outright dishonesty – dishonesty within the company or dishonesty to our clients. Second, you could be fired for your failure to learn. I did have a case in which we had given someone very explicit feedback three times in regard to the same behavior, behavior that caused our client to ask for that consultant to be removed from the assignment. Each time he blamed the client rather than accepting responsibility. He could not, or would not, learn.
If your company makes the above guidance the norm, you will have dedicated employees who are engaged in continuous self-improvement, and you will be respected as a trustworthy leader.