For any manager, one of the hardest things to do is fire an employee.
I had to do it three times during the 10 years I ran a medium-sized public relations and publishing company I founded in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and although the conversations I had with my employees were (of course) difficult for me to initiate, all three dismissals were necessary for the health of the company.
Although in all three cases the dismissals were justified by either poor performance or misconduct, it’s never easy to tell someone who relies on you and your company for the income they need to pay their rent and buy their groceries and pay their children’s school fees that they’re out of a job.
[Former GE CEO Jack Welch may disagree with me: he famously fired the bottom 10 percent of his managers every year.]
It’s mostly your fault
One of the employees I fired was someone I had done a bad job of vetting when I hired him. On paper he was fantastically qualified, but after only a few days, my clients started telling me the quality of his work was poor. He was a Chinese-language editor, so, unable to evaluate the quality of his work myself, I had a few friends take a look, and after he turned up drunk to a morning meeting at which we were to discuss the problem, it was clear to me he had to go. He took it calmly, and presumably headed off to the bar.
Another employee impressed me during our interview with her intelligence and apparent interest in working for my organization, but turned out to not need the job. She was a rich kid, who wanted to work on her own terms, not the organization’s.
Although we had flexible working hours, during her first month she repeatedly turned up closer to lunchtime than a time I considered appropriate (if you can’t get in before 10:00 a.m., you’re not trying very hard), and I told her she’d have to make an effort to get in earlier.
A few days later, at around 9:15 a.m. I overheard my general manager field a telephone call that made me suspect it was the employee, calling in to see if I was in the office, so she could time her arrival, or figure out an excuse. When she finally arrived, we had a brief conversation and she was on her way, presumably with fewer constraints on her late-night partying.
The last employee I fired did nothing wrong, so letting her go was much tougher. She was simply not good enough at her job for me to keep on in our small organization. And in fact, the first time I tried to fire her, I failed. She begged me to give her a second chance, and against my better judgment, I did. Of course she didn’t get better at her job, because she was already at the limits of her ability. So I had to do it again, several months later.
A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do (and so does a woman)
My company never got bigger than around 20 people in two (or three) offices, so it was impossible for me to shirk my responsibility as a manager, but because for most of us, conflict is something to be avoided, in large organizations it’s a lot easier to hide deadwood (make sure they have computers, so they can spend their days surfing the Internet on company time!).
I have also known a few managers who kept useless employees – even senior ones – on board because they felt firing them reflected badly on their original hiring decisions. Which may be true, but doesn’t make it any easier to get the job done.
Another guy I know, a former client, had a preference for hiring managers he knew would be extremely grateful for the job. People who were well aware they wouldn’t get a better deal elsewhere, and knew whom to thank for it. This guy was definitely not a believer in the adage, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
If you find yourself needing to fire someone, the first step is acknowledging that a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. As does a woman.
After that, try to be a decent human being. Even if the employee has been guilty of misconduct.
That said, it’s also important to protect the organization, e.g. information systems and reputation, from an employee who reacts aggressively.
Medium- to large-sized organizations have human resources departments and a section of the company handbook that addresses “terminations”, but in smaller organizations – like mine – the founder/CEO usually has to handle the dirty work.
The first thing to do is make sure an underperforming employee knows that he or she is failing to live up to expectations, and ideally, when you let people know they need to step up their game, you offer guidance and support to help them to improve. It’s almost always easier to help someone to improve than to fire and rehire.
But if the employee can’t or won’t improve, you have to make a change.
What you need: legal standing, preparation … and decency
To start, it’s worth noting that some countries’ labor laws make it very, very difficult to fire anyone, and every country has labor regulations that spell out employee rights and obligations. Employers ignore these at their own peril.
For example, in the United States, workers are for the most part employed “at will”. A notice period may be agreed for termination (or resignation), in lieu of which salary may be paid, but basically, employers have less trouble dismissing employees than in some other countries.
As another example, China maintains a system under which employees are signed to written employment contracts from which they can be dislodged only with great difficulty, “for cause” that must be very clearly proven.
And in non-confrontational Japan, where I live, it’s not uncommon to transfer unwanted employees to “window seat” positions, in which they are given no work and can only sit and look out the window all day. The hope is that they will get bored enough to quit on their own.
The bottom line is that you must have a thorough knowledge of the employee’s (and the organization’s) rights in the jurisdiction in which he or she is employed. The costs of a “messy divorce” can be extremely high.
Prior to meeting the employee to deliver the news, you’ll want to prepare. You’ll want to consider your remarks beforehand, and anticipate the employee’s possible responses. If there is severance due, and paperwork, prepare it all, and go through it during the meeting with the employee. If you have an HR manager, or office manager, consider having that person sit in on the meeting to ensure you cover everything you need to from a legal standpoint.
An important part of preparation is securing your information system. It sounds harsh, but you should be ready to lock the employee out of the computer network immediately. Be sure as well you revoke the employee’s access to your physical premises. If you have card or key access, get the card/key back. If you use a door code(s), change the codes.
Then, if the employee plays an important role in your client/supplier relationships, be prepared to immediately inform everyone who needs to know that you have made a change, and if you feel they should know why, tell people tactfully.
Of course, you will need to inform your own staff, including in remote offices, as soon as you’ve finalized the dismissal. This includes paying special attention to employees who may have been close to the person you’ve let go; make sure they understand why the dismissal was necessary, that it was done respectfully, and how the organization/department/unit will move forward.
Remember the Golden Rule
Dismissing an employee is never easy, but being fired is much worse. In addition to the obvious concerns about loss of income and how they will tell family and friends, and find new employment, employees will have concerns about what their colleagues and clients have been told, how they will be able to collect their belongings, what will happen to the projects they’re working on, and many other things. If you can prepare answers, or ask someone within the organization to manage the transition, the process will be smoother for everyone.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius was not a businessman, but as usual, he had something relevant to say: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” By handling dismissals with sensitivity and compassion, you protect your organization’s reputation, help the employee maintain his or her dignity, and hopefully feel you handled a tough job as well as you could.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.