The Art of Letting People Go

By Jacob Harper on 2 December 2011 (Updated 12 December 2011) 0 comments
Photo: MarsBars

Firing people stinks. There’s just no two ways about it. Maybe the soon to be ex-employee deserved it; they were incompetent and they stole and they set the store on fire… again. Maybe you hated this person’s work ethic, this person’s lackluster production, this person with the white-hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.

But, as an employer, you cannot let any of that color how you end the business relationship. You should always take the high road—people always remember how they are let go, and a bad word or reputation, underserved or no, can haunt your business more than you think. Try thinking of ending a business relationship as you would end a personal one—with a combination of directness, sincerity, and care, but all on top of absolute resolution and unwavering commitment to ending it.

Below are some tips to letting down a soon-to-be-employee with grace and dignity.

1. Do Any and All Firing Out of Sight, Please

This should go without saying, but firing people in front of others is a no-no. In fact, try to keep the entire process—the call-in, the act itself, the aftermath—as discrete as possible. As far as your remaining employees know, your employee was fired by the HR ghost.

2. Cut to the Chase

Don’t drag it out. The employee might know the firing is coming, or it might be a complete blindside. But don’t feign that your meeting is anything but what it is. It’s disrespectful and insincere to ask Jerry about what kind of bass he caught on his fishing trip before you give him the ax. Be respectful. Just get to it.

3. Play a Variation of the “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

While Seinfeld famously mocked the relationship ending cop-out “It’s not you, it’s me” for being an insincere lie, there is actually a variation of this that is quite useful in terminating business relationships, one that isn’t quite so disingenuous. And it’s probably completely honest. It’s not you; it’s not me. It’s us.

You can let (former) employees down easily, placing the onus of blame on the employee/employer bond, not on the employee or employer as people. This can be done while still asserting that the professional relationship is irrevocably broken. It works like “It’s not you, it’s me” but you’ll actually be telling the truth.

4. Compliment, Compliment, Compliment…

In a way, the strategy of complimenting profusely plays off of the “it’s not you, it’s us.” You’re letting your employee know that they possess many strengths—they just don’t mesh well with what is necessary for this working relationship.

And again, you aren’t being insincere. There are probably many qualities that are positive with this employee. Write them down and memorize them, if you have to. Even if it doesn’t seem likely, complimenting will soften the blow.

If you are laying on the compliments really thick you’re liable to get a protest along the lines of “If I’m so great how come you’re firing me?” Which is why it’s of the utmost importance to…

5. Be Absolutely Resolute

This goes back to cutting to the chase. Do not allow wiggle room. The quicker the employee/employer bonds are severed completely, the quicker everyone can start moving on. DO NOT WAVER OR GIVE FALSE HOPE. To return to the “ending a personal relationship” comparison, this is the equivalent of the “maybe one day down the road.” No! Not one day the road. Quick and clean is how you fire.

6. Open the Floor Before They Go

Ask if the employee has any questions. Chances are, they will. If you have been truthful, though, and emphasized continually that the problem is the working relationship and not one person or the other, you can answer questions directly and honestly without disparaging anyone personally or lying. And again, answer truthfully while maintaining zero wiggle room. You are great, but this is over.

Firing people isn’t ever easy. You are terminating a relationship this person has come to rely on. But a relationship goes both ways, and if one party is dissatisfied, that relationship cannot continue in good faith. This can be communicated tactfully, honestly, and cleanly. Then both parties can move on to finding new people.

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