How to Fire Someone So They'll Thank You For It
In an earlier post, I described how our new CEO determined that we had to fire almost half our team. This sucked for many reasons, but the main one? It was emotional. Firing a terrible person is easy, but how do you fire a good person who is a bad fit in a way that doesn't hurt them?
That was the next lesson from our new CEO, JT McCormick. He showed us how to fire someone, not just with dignity and respect, but in a way where they actually thank you for the experience. Literally, three of the five people he fired wrote him emails thanking him afterwards.
Here's exactly what he did:
1. Transition from coaching them up, to coaching them out.
As I wrote in the last post, before you fire someone you should identify where they're not performing, show them, set clear objectives, and give them the coaching they need to achieve them. If you've done this, and they nail it, grea -- you won't have to fire them.
As you are working through this process, you generally know if they are going to make it or not. If they don't look like they're going to make it, then the process to fire them starts. You start to move from from coaching them up, to coaching them out.
Done right, the processes naturally flow into each other, because they're both about empathy. "Once you shift to coaching them out, it's a very delicate series of conversations to get this person to see that they're not a fit, see why they don't fit and where they can't grow with the company, and maybe see a path for them towards something else," McCormick said. "The first coaching out conversation is diagnosing whether they're not performing because they're in the wrong chair. Ask them, 'If you could do any job in the company, what would it be?'"
If you get a decisive answer, McCormick said, then you have to evaluate if they have the skills for that role. You can even test them in that role.
If you get an answer like, 'I'm not sure', then go one step further and ask them if they could create any role in the company -- for themselves, what would it be? Have them describe the perfect job for themselves. "If they can't tell you that," McCormick said, "then it's obvious, and not just to you. They'll start to see this isn't the place for them.
"The best result here is that they describe a job that does fit them really well, but does not exist in your company. Then they not only see that the company isn't the right place for them, but that a place does exist for them somewhere else. So the real thing you're trying to understand yourself, and help them to see, is not only are they not performing, but they're probably not performing for a reason, and so the best thing possible for them is to move jobs."
2. Make the dismissal about their dignity and humanity, not corporate HR rules.
Once the decision has been made to fire them, it's time to stop coaching them out, and fire them. Now you make it completely about them. During the firing conversation, don't focus on why you're firing them; that groundwork has been laid already. Now it's time to help them.
In the firing conversation, McCormick said, don't focus on the negatives of what they've done. "We've already talked about this over the past few weeks, so why do that? I'll go over it quickly, and then move on. I want to focus on the best plan of action for the exit so this person can move on with their life. You want to do right by them."
This also means not talking to them in a dry, corporate, distant style. It means talking to them and like a human, and treating them like someone you know and value and care about.
"Big corporations have turned firing conversations into these HR nightmares where they're afraid to say or do anything," McCormick said. "The conversations are so cold and cutthroat, they really dehumanize people. To hell with that. You know this person, they are a good person, treat them like it."
Related: The Right Way to Fire An Employee
But this also means not pretending everything is fine. It's not. They're getting fired. "On the startup side," he said, "the problem I see is that entrepreneurs let their feelings get in the way of saying what needs to be said. You have to be able to have a straight conversation with someone regarding the stark truth of what's happening. Candor is a way of being kind."
And sometimes, this means letting them say goodbye.
McCormick expands on that thought -- "For many people, if they aren't a complete asshole, you let them say goodbye, especially to the people they were friends with. Especially in startups where some of these folks were key in helping the growth of the company. You let that person save face and exit gracefully. You don't escort them out with security, like they're some animal. You treat them with respect by showing them you care about them."
3. Let them know you will support them, and then actually do it.
That final conversation also needs to let them know, very clearly and specifically, what you are going to do to help them now. Remember -- for you, this is the end of their tenure at your company. But they're not dying. For them, this is their life.
For starters, McCormick said, his company gives the best severance package possible. "If possible, I like to pay eight weeks severance. To have a two month safety net to find their next opportunity really makes them feel safe and cared for, and they can relax," he said.
McCormick tells employees not only will he write them a recommendation, but he'll tell them what he'll say in it. "I give them suggestions about what jobs to go after, based on our earlier conversations about what they want. I even offer to refer them to places I think they will be a good fit with.
"And most importantly," he continues, "I tell them that this doesn't have to be the end of our relationship. I'll answer any questions, and I'll give them any advice or help I can. Email me. Call me. Text me. I'm here for you if you need me. And I mean it. Most don't take me up on this, but they still appreciate it, because they know it's real. And they feel valued and cared for, even while being fired."
And it works. Done correctly, McCormick said, the fired employees will learn a lot about themselves, and will eventually end up in a better place in their life because of what they learned from the process. "And they will email you and thank you afterwards."
I never would have believed this until I saw it happen. Three different people from our company sent our CEO thank you emails after they left. His coaching had helped them see things about themselves, and his candor and kindness had been a real benefit to them.
Firing people is never fun, but it can leave everyone better off if it's done right.