When you are a human resource professional or hiring leader, firing right is just as important a part of your job as is hiring right. No one wakes up in the morning looking forward to terminating a staff member’s employment. In fact, people hate it so much they often wait far too long. While firing the right way won’t eliminate all the pain for either party, it will make the conversation much more palatable.
In any employment separation, voluntary or involuntary, most of us want to have clean and graceful closures. Many HR professionals and managers doubt this is likely, or even possible. It is! For involuntary terminations, clean closure means: dot your I’s and cross your T’s with every aspect of the decision, the process, and the conversation. Graceful closure means treating the individual with dignity and compassion. After all, they are losing their livelihood, status, and security, not you, so graciousness is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
It is essential to give people an opportunity to make course corrections whenever possible. With the exception of dangerous and/or egregious behavior, employees must receive constructive feedback and be given a reasonable amount of time (dependent on the issue) to turn things around. No firing should be a surprise! Each situation and each person will be different, but a good rule of thumb is: address concerns quickly, provide immediate constructive feedback and/or undertake an intervention – then be clear about the specific measurable results you expect to see within a specific time frame and then…follow up.
There are times when people can fool us, or perhaps an employee’s life implodes for unpredictable non-work reasons, or the job outgrows them, or you are forced into a layoff situation. With the pandemic of 2020 looming heavily over all our lives, the unpredictable has become an everyday event and we need to take that into account. And then there are those moments when one incident makes the decision to terminate immediate and imperative.
Leaders often ask, “Do I need to put up with this, or am I justified in firing for it?” Within these five reasons reason to fire, at least one will likely fit most firing for cause terminations that arise.
5 Reasons to Fire
1. Does Not ‘Play’ Well With Others: More people are fired for this reason than any other, no matter what the public cover story might be. The inability to work well with others will continue to be, the ‘Achilles Heel’ of too many very bright people because of a serious deficit of emotional intelligence competencies. We know it when we see it; an employee is consistently difficult to work with, won’t collaborate, is a bully, or high maintenance. If the employee adds great value to your organization, then training, and/or coaching may help shift these behaviors. If the employee is not deserving of the investment or doesn’t respond well, it’s probably time to fire and fire fast, before more damage is done.
2. Loss of Trust: Loss of trust is a root cause underlying several reasons to terminate. Consistent poor performance, broken promises, ethical breaches, sabotage, policy violations, lying, etc. all have low trust outcomes. We know in our gut when we do and don’t trust someone and often why we feel that way. Loss of trust is a very important, signal that something is wrong. Don’t ignore the warnings! Verify or disprove your feelings. Bottom line, if trust is broken, you will either have to find a way together to rebuild trust or that employee needs to leave your organization. No trust, no job.
3. Blame Shifting and Avoidance: When an employee avoids conversations about performance, and/or shifts the blame to another person, they likely suspect they will be held accountable, and don’t want to have that conversation. When blame shifting, the employee is failing to take responsibility for their choices and throwing someone else ‘under the bus’. If this behavior doesn’t change with feedback and coaching, it’s time to fire.
4. Insubordination: This is a sub-category of both trust and not playing well with others, but it’s egregious enough to stand on its own. Insubordination is the direct or indirect refusal by an employee to perform a legal, ethical, and reasonable directive from a manager or supervisor when the directive has been clearly understood.[i] If coaching or counseling is an option, then by all means, start there. However, if the situation is serious, dangerous and threatening to others, insubordination can be just cause for an immediate termination.
5. Lack of Engagement: This can be an outcome of someone who has ‘retired in the job’ or a newer employee who came in sprinting but couldn’t or wouldn’t run the marathon. If you see low or no drive, a lack of a ‘can do’ attitude, and it’s clear their heart isn’t in it, then many of the reasons you hired this employee are no longer present. Before lack of engagement becomes a cause for firing, search for the root cause and offer to help the employee course correct. However, if you believe you hired one kind of person, and you discover it is not the case, you were fooled, and it’s time to either find a better fit for that employee, or it’s time to fire.
Some organizations have a culture of almost never firing anyone. Others have a culture where firing is a handy ‘go-to’ option at any moment. There are times and situations when firing fast is absolutely the right thing to do, and the same is true with firing slowly. Too fast and too slow are both bad for business. Since firing right is the goal, it’s worth taking the time to explore the pros and cons of each.
How To Fire Right – The 5 “Be” Principles
If firing were easy, it would happen faster and more often when we identify underperformance and unacceptable workplace behaviors. When you are certain there is no better option than to fire an employee, you know the “what”. It is at least as important to answer the question of “how will you fire?” We all know it’s not going to be fun or easy. The following approach will make the conversation more palatable because of the attention you have given to having a human relational approach, and because of rigorous due diligence.
These 5 “BE” Principles for involuntary terminations, when followed rigorously, can transform the experience for both parties; BE Truthful, BE Fair, BE Clear, BE Respectful, and BE Smart.
1. BE Truthful: Employees should know exactly why they are being released from their job. Tell them the truth. People fill in blanks with inaccurate and bad news, so don’t leave room for doubt. Gross misconduct is gross misconduct, and poor performance is poor performance. Sometimes it's a matter of a bad hire or a bad fit and it's simply time to part ways. Don't embellish and don't minimize; tell the truth with accuracy, sincerity, and kindness. Showing sincere compassion is not a weakness in a leader, and it often helps the firing conversation go much more smoothly. When telling others about the termination, it’s important to be timely and honest in accordance with your organization's policies while being respectful of the terminated employee. Look to your organizational values; most employee terminations result from a violation of one or more core values.
2. BE Fair: Fairness is a fundamental human need and expectation in our workplaces. It is a major factor in how the terminated employee feels when he or she exits the organization. Furthermore, whether or not the terminated employee is perceived to have been treated fairly is the question everyone else makes judgments upon. Asking yourself what would feel fair to you is a good litmus test. Does the punishment fit the crime? Then consider how this employee needs to hear the news. Put yourself into their shoes and imagine what they might be feeling and. While you and that fired employee may disagree about what is or is not fair, be kinder than you have to, be more gracious than you have to, because in the end, that employee will still go away; the only question is will they go quietly or not? If you have done everything you should have and could have to help this person be successful, and they still didn't cut it, then sleep easy. If not, there is more work to do before you fire that person.
3. BE Clear: Whenever possible, you should have had at least one, and preferably several, discussions with the employee where it’s been made it crystal clear that their job was on the line and exactly why. If the person is let go after a thoughtful process of attempted improvement, remind them what was discussed and when, what needed to happen by when, and spell out how they did not succeed in making the changes necessary to continue in their position. Document all of these conversations carefully. Do not put yourself in a position to defend this decision with the employee; it is not a negotiation, it’s a final decision. The decision to terminate employment should have been made with excellent due diligence, and should not be a surprise. In this conversation, you are following through with what you said would happen. There's no more ‘if only’ or ‘what if’ to be discussed. Cut to the chase, make whatever offer you have decided upon (resignation option, money, severance, reference responses, timing, etc.), then stand up, put out your hand, wish the employee well. Be quiet. It is not a weakness to show another human being your compassion for them.
4. BE Respectful: Always take the high road. Believe it or not, you could be fair with the process and not respectful to the person. Being respectful to the employee is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. People don’t sue people when they feel respected. This should not feel or be transactional any more than hiring should be transactional. You are ending it, and you need to acknowledge the pain in doing so. It is in your best interest to keep that relationship respectful and professional every step of the way. This is definitely not the time to say ‘I told you so’, or list off all the things they could have done differently. It’s not about you; it’s about them. Keep in mind, this person is an adult, and the conversation needs to treat them that way.
5. BE Smart: There are emotional aspects of the termination discussion and there are other factors to consider, like might the employee become volatile, do you need security precautions, whether or not HR or others should be present in the room, as well as ensuring your exit checklist is complete. Your organization should have a solid termination process to follow to keep you out of legal and any other kind of jeopardy. You should have prepared a comprehensive Termination Check List long before you begin a termination meeting with an employee. (Available to copy from my book Hire Right, Fire Right). It is almost never worth it to be stingy when offering some money can go a long way to making a bad situation turn out a lot better. Having said that, when the firing offense is so egregious that you’d rather risk a lawsuit, then, by all means, offer nothing of value. It is the smart thing to take all the time you need to be well-prepared and then stick to the plan unless something truly extraordinary changes your mind. Serious and rigorous preparation significantly reduces the odds you’ll have to change your decision.
Being fired is a tough experience for the employee and you, even when it is fair, done respectfully, and with grace and integrity. By utilizing the 5 “BE” Principles, both parties have a much better opportunity to end the relationship with dignity and grace.
Roxi Bahar Hewertson is a leadership expert with more than three decades of practical experience in the worlds of higher education, business, and non-profits. She is the CEO of Highland Consulting Group, Inc.
[i] “Insubordination,” BetterTeam.com, July 22, 2020
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