We’ve all heard of unexpected firings and poorly handled layoffs. The latest example was about as high-profile as it gets: When President Donald Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey found out his status only when the news scrolled across a TV set while he was at speaking engagement.
That must have been a bad day for Comey; but it wasn’t a great one for his colleagues either. Like any team members who suddenly lose an integral player, they must have wondered what would happen next and how their boss's departure would affect their careers.
Certainly, nobody likes firing people. It’s one of the most unpleasant aspects of being a leader, but it sometimes has to happen. When it does, you need to think about the dignity of the person involved, as well as the morale factor for remaining team members.
Cuts I myself have made have often occurred because those people weren't the right fit for our team. This has usually meant I’ve done a bad job of screening, interviewing or onboarding. So, I have to let the employee go because that's what's best for the company -- but I also have to handle the termination well.
Suck out the shame.
I once hired a recent college graduate who fit in perfectly with our team. Everyone loved him. Unfortunately, when his skills and motivation plateaued, I had to let him go -- and that was a tough decision. Instead of being quiet about it and making it seem shameful, we told him exactly what he did well and how he could improve in the future. We then celebrated his last day before respectfully sending him on his way with his dignity intact.
Handling it this way assured the rest of the team members that they wouldn’t be treated poorly or disrespectfully if things ever stopped working for them, too. If and when we had to part ways, they knew we would still have their backs.
The letting go of an employee may feel awkward, but it beats the alternative of letting someone who isn’t the right fit stick around. Nobody’s completely irreplaceable from a skills and execution standpoint afer all.
Beware the "culture villain."
Another problem is that, if you value only meritocracy, deliverables and performance, you could end up retaining a superstar who’s also a "culture villain," actively recruiting others to the dark side.
Culture and attitude have to be as important as skills or technical ability. Letting one of these high performers go reinforces this belief for the team.
That’s why you’ve got to get the problem person out before his or her attitude rubs off on the rest of the team. When you let a high performer go because he or she has somehow harmed the company, people realize they’re expected not only to perform at a high level, but also to mesh with the culture.
Conversely, you might have someone who is well loved but struggles to perform. Someone who is a great culture fit but fails to execute will eventually breed resentment, as well as drag down production. According to researchers in one study at Harvard Business School, 10 percent of a worker’s performance influences his or her neighbor’s performance. That’s a huge impact.
It’s not me; it’s you.
Whether it’s a high performer who’s a bad culture fit or a great culture fit who can’t perform, you have to part ways with negative employees. Once you’ve accepted that, you must bid adieu, but do it properly. Letting an employee go should improve the overall work environment, not damage it.
Here are three ways to make the best of the hardest part of your job.
1. Let team members know how it will affect them personally.
I heard a long time ago that the only radio station people listen to is WIFM: "What’s in It for Me." Any time you let someone go, remaining employees are bound to worry they’re next.
You can assuage their fears by being transparent. Glassdoor found that 90 percent of job seekers in one survey said they wanted to work for transparent companies, precisely because they wanted to know they could trust their employers in touchy situations, such as when they lose a teammate.
I try to preserve the trust I’ve built with my own team and reassure each person by saying, “Here’s specifically what was out of alignment with that employee. But you’re doing a great job. If you were in jeopardy, I would let you know.”
Ease people’s anxiety by showing them why the firing makes good business sense and will improve the team going forward. Being transparent will both help people relax and reinforce awareness of whatever kind of behavior won’t cut it in your organization.
2. Don’t blindside anyone.
According to Survata research, more than 70 percent of employees want better communication from their companies. You can bet this applies to communications around job performance and status, especially. When it comes to letting someone go, there’s no more important time to focus on open and respectful communication.
An example? When SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh found out she’d lost her job, she was on a work trip a thousand miles away from home with her 3-month-old twins. Talk about harsh. Who would want to make anyone feel the way Walsh must have? Not me.
We have a system at Hawke Media called the “Island Talk,” which is a lighthearted way of saying “three strikes and you’re out.” We don’t let people go without first giving them a very clear set of instructions and a shot at working through a performance-improvement plan.
3. Own your decisions.
The first time I made the decision to fire someone, I had to let a guy go who was 10 years older than I was. I needed advice. So I approached my then-girlfriend’s dad, an American Express executive.
He told me that the No. 1 thing I had to do was tell both the man I was letting go and the rest of the team: “Look, this is my decision to let Bob go. This isn’t coming from anybody else, and there’s nothing else going into this. This is all me. I stand by it, and here’s why.”
I’ve done that ever since, and can report that someone as highly placed as Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey agrees with this method.
When Dorsey had to cut 335 jobs -- 8 percent of Twitter’s workforce -- he announced to his remaining team members that he would be giving one-third of his own stock (worth $200 million) to the employee equity pool. By taking ownership of his decision and showing his remaining employees he had their best interests at heart, Dorsey avoided riots and vilification.
The message is, let people know you take personal responsibility. If they’re angry, they can be angry with you -- not the company. It’s likely partly your fault for hiring the wrong employee, anyway, and it will definitely be your decision to let that person go. To prevent employees' disillusionment with your company, hold yourself accountable.
In sum, firing people is the hardest thing you’ll have to do. But, if you do it for the right reasons and in the right way, the result will be a positive outcome for you and your team.