Friday, March 12, 2010

First time - Part 16: Firing

This is part 16 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

Firing someone (we can use nice words here: ‘let go,’ ‘terminate employment,’ ‘grant a leave of absence,’ but it all feels the same to the person being fired, and needs to be as seriously considered by you) is the opposite side of the coin from hiring people. While it is important to hire the right people, it is equally important to identify those who don’t fit in your organization and move them out. Before I go any further, it very important to remember that you are dealing with real human beings; letting someone go – firing – someone is never going to be easy and never will be pleasant. In all your dealing with people you should always be polite, but this is particularly true in the case of firing someone. Before you say or do anything, think about how you would feel if you were on the receiving end.

There are a number of tasks that you must never delegate, and firing someone is one of those tasks. If they work for you, you must tell them. In some cases you may have a superior who wants to shield you from the process and whatever backlash which may accompany the decision. You should politely resist this. As unpleasant as it will be, and it will be unpleasant, it is essential that you understand what is at stake, and the only way to do that is through first hand experience. If your boss wants to be in the room when you tell the person concerned, very well. But you should insist that you inform them.

Firing someone must rest on one of three clearly identified reasons:

1) Serious ethical and legal lapse; this is obvious and needs no further discussion. This is also the only case where you have any real chance of the event being anything other than unpleasant. And even in such cases it will probably still be unpleasant. In this situation it is best to simply state the obvious – the behavior was not and is not acceptable and the individual has been terminated.

2) Performance failure: Poor performance should be documented over time and clearly communicated to the individual involved. We discussed this last week and earlier: you need to both set standards and document with your people how well they are meeting the standards. Only when you have ensured that an individual has the proper training and proper tools to achieve his assigned tasks and, after discussion and counseling, should you consider firing someone for performance failure. It is worth noting that if you have ensured that someone has the aptitude, training and tools/assets to achieve assigned tasks, and he has been counseled – more than once – on failure to perform, firing them should not be a surprise.

In such a case, you should still take the time to explain to them why you are firing them. Include in this explanation any sense you may have of how they might improve in their next job and, in particular, what jobs might be better suited for them.

3) The final reason to fire someone is that they refuse to get ‘on the team.’ This can either be easy or traumatic, but is usually traumatic. Every manager has a worker who grouses continually but performs admirably; such people are rarely a concern and are not the object of this section. Rather, it is the individual who performs well, usually above the average, but not only doesn’t share the organizational goal, but is undermining it by his behavior; this is the individual we are concerned with here. This will require serious counseling and, in some cases, you may be able to ‘turn them around,’ and in today’s litigious climate, you will need to keep extensive documentation. But once you identify this behavior you need to act to end it.

Again, careful documentation and a clear explanation are both necessary and should be provided to the individual being fired.

In some cases you may want a witness, depending on the circumstances and the individual involved. You should at least consider having one and if you have any doubt talk it over with your peers or, if the company has one, the legal counsel.

Remember that no matter what you say, and how you say it, the person being fired will take it very personally. It is best to keep your explanation as narrowly focused as possible. This is not an indictment of the employee as a human being; you are not sitting in judgment of them, only of their specific performance. Even in the event of someone being fired because of an ethics issue, leave any comments between you and your shadow. Even if the situation involves some egregious ethical behavior, no matter how angry you may be, keep your comments brief, civil and to the point.

Finally, to restate the case, think about how you would feel if the tables were turned. In most cases people are let go because they simply don’t fit. When you talk with them, take some time to point out where they might fit. And be polite.


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