The Most Distasteful Management Task: Firing

March 28, 2009

Firing takes two main forms:

1. Termination due to an economic “position elimination.”

2. Termination due to poor job performance.

Unfortunately, the net result is the same. Someone looses their job.

There is little that can be done when economic forces are at work. If the business doesn't support the current head count, trimming is better than trying to make a go of it and potentially putting even more jobs at risk. Not that I think all the trimming that goes on in the world is truly valid – but those decisions are typically made at high levels of the organization, and out of the control of lower-level managers.

Personally, I feel that laying someone off due to "position elimination" is more distasteful than firing someone for poor job performance. Eliminating a position – and a person – because you have a gun to your head and you need to make cuts versus dealing with poor job performance is just that much harder for me to do. I’ve had this duty – knowing that those who are being laid off have families to support – and it really tears me up.

When it comes to poor job performance, I never take terminating someone lightly, either. I make every effort to provide all the feedback, coaching and time to improve before making this call. I provide essential feedback and room for people to correct and improve. I also recognize that people may have things going on in their personal lives that can affect short-term performance.

My personal philosophy is to exercise as much due-diligence as possible. As a manager, I feel personally responsible for the performance – and non-performance – of those who report to me.

I’ve heard that some managers out there don’t provide much in the way of straight and candid feedback. This goes back to my prior post, Assessing, Coaching and Developing Your Staff, where I noted that some people don’t handle conflict well. Managers can be guilty of this as well.

My experience is that you must fully prepare for the conversation, have your notes and thoughts in order, and then have the conversation. In general, people will respond reasonably (initial reactions aside) to feedback that is related to their job performance, as long as you are objective and constructive about what they need to do.

If someone needs improvement, my first move is a conversation, usually in a regular a one-on-one session. If the conversation does not help improve the situation, I start documenting the problem in the semi-formal quarterly review, and if necessary I progress up to the formal annual review with full documentation. (Unless the issue is pressing enough that something needs to be done much sooner.)

I find that most adjustments can be made through coaching conversations. Some people get blinders on, though, and you may need to continually move up the formality chain to get the message across. It takes time, but if I’m faced with firing someone, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and feel that I did all that I could in fairness to that person.

I'm sure that you would agree that if you are spending repeated effort over time on the same issue(s), the old saying holds true: “It’s not the people that you fire that make you miserable, it’s the people that you don’t.” 

No matter what the circumstances – an economic position elimination or termination due to poor performance – I terminate people in a face to face conversation. HR is always part of the final process, but I don’t hide behind HR and let them do my dirty work. In cases where I’ve had remote employees I’ve done this over the phone, but our working relationship was always on a telecommuting basis anyway.