Corner Office-“You’re Fired!”
Firing people isn’t ever a pleasant experience—unless, of course, you’re Donald Trump starring in your own reality television show on NBC. He seems to relish the job, shouting, “You’re fired!” as he points his finger at the next unlucky apprentice candidate.
In my career, I’ve had to fire many people, and let me tell you, it’s not as easy or fun as “The Donald” makes it look. The reality is that it’s a gut-wrenching, lump-in-the-throat, guilt-laden job. In bookstores and on the Internet, advice abounds on the proper way to fire employees in order to minimize emotional pain and legal risks. So I’m not going to write about that stuff. Instead, I’d like to discuss what underlies the decision-making process in one of the most difficult decisions leaders have to make.
When It’s Black and White
Of course, sometimes there are clear reasons to fire an employee: fraud, theft, harassment of fellow employees. Situations where there is proof of unethical or illegal behavior are no-brainers that simply have to be taken care of immediately to protect your organization.
But what if you only have anecdotal evidence that an employee is dishonest or lacks integrity? You still can’t ignore it. Follow your intuition and try to catch him or her in the act. Once you’ve caught someone in a few lies or instances of abusive behavior with co-workers, can you really believe it stops there? Is that person lying to customers and shareholders, too? Cussing out vendors? It’s a risk you can’t afford to have around.
Then It Gets Gray
Unfortunately, the list of easy decisions about firing an employee is short. Decisions in the gray, fuzzy area are more numerous. That’s why firing someone is so difficult, and why most leaders avoid it for as long as possible.
Maybe you’ve simply lost confidence in the person’s ability to do the job. It’s probably someone who’s very nice, who you especially don’t want to hurt. It may be the salesperson who always promises results but never delivers. Or the engineer who has great designs that are not practical to manufacture. Or the middle manager who’s been promoted to his or her best level of incompetence. Eventually, you have to realize that no amount of training or patience will change that person’s performance.
Another fuzzy situation is when someone is not effective, but as this person’s manager, you realize that you’ve done a poor job of defining expectations. You feel guilty for not doing regular performance reviews with this employee, and spend time blaming yourself for the problems instead of dealing with them.
Or perhaps the person has the right skills, but has a personality that’s disruptive or destructive to your organization. Some personalities, even with a lot of coaching and mentoring on your part, will never change—short of a lobotomy. Leopards don’t change their spots.
An interesting phenomenon is when we hesitate to fire someone because that person has been such a problem child that we’ve spent a lot of time together in remedial training and have come to know each other well. Sometimes, we even promote these people because we’ve created them in our own image. But that never works out well.
The worst situation of all is when the problem employee is a friend or family member—the CEO’s golfing buddy or the owner’s son or daughter who’s been placed in a leadership position without any regard for matching skills to the job. Over time, this person’s inability to perform is apparent to everyone but the CEO or owner, who can’t see it through the veil of friendship or family ties.
In all of these gray, fuzzy areas, what usually happens is avoidance. You might attempt to give hints as to your unhappiness, hoping deep down that the person will pick up your signals and leave without you saying anything. You might start giving important tasks to other employees, or leaving the person out of conversations and meetings. Even though this is perhaps the cruelest and most immature way to deal with the problem, I’ve seen many leaders employ these tactics.
Why We Can’t Avoid It
Keeping the wrong people around because you don’t want to deal with firing them is bad business. It means poor productivity, missed deadlines, loss of intellectual property, low morale, “chain reaction” turnover, and probably lost customers and revenues. I’ve read that the cost of replacing an employee is three times his or her salary in lost productivity, training, and recruiting. So it seems reasonable to assume that keeping the wrong employee is just as costly. That ought to help you overcome any reticence you feel!
Once you’ve concluded that it’s best for your organization to fire someone, realize that it’s probably better for them to move on as well. I’ve had former employees tell me years after I’ve fired them that, while it was painful at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened to them. They confess that they wouldn’t have left on their own, even though they were unhappy, and the new jobs they’ve found are more fulfilling and ones to which they’re better suited.
Recently, I had to fire another person in my firm. He’s very intelligent, got along with our clients, possessed high energy, and was very likeable, but had a tendency to be disruptive and political—not a fit with our corporate culture of collaboration. After a lot of thought and several discussions with him, I concluded that he had become ineffective for the organization and wouldn’t change. And I let him go.
Is that a sad ending? I don’t think so. He has many wonderful qualities and a track record of success, but probably works best in a different type of environment. I hope to keep in touch with him and will not be surprised if, over time, we agree that our parting was in the best interest of both of us.
So, the next time you’re watching Trump on The Apprentice, don’t feel sorry for the person getting fired. Take pity on Trump’s poor hair stylist instead!