Contributed Column

Personnel Points

When You Have to
Fire an Employee

by Dave Mount, Westaff

Most managers will tell you that they hate to fire people more than anything they do, and that’s a good thing, because I would never trust an employee of mine, much less a manager, who enjoys the task. Yet firing people is as much a part of a manager’s job as coming to work every day. It’s just that it does not happen as often.

If we hire well, train well and motivate well, firing will not often be necessary, but it still happens. 

Jack Welsh, the former chairman of GE and a management guru, uses a lot of text in his book, Jack, writing about upgrading the staff. He even uses the term “relentlessly upgrade the staff.” He hypothesizes that employees in an organization can be divided into three groups: the superstars, the “workers” and those who don’t belong. His experience at GE caused him to say that the percentages in each category are 10, 80 and 10; therefore, 10 percent of his employees should leave the company each year.

All this leads me to the notion that I am an expert on firing people. 

I am not an expert because I do it often or even because I do it well. I am an expert because I have done it wrong so often I could write a book on how not to fire people. 

Another management expert wrote once — there are so many experts nowadays that I don’t recall which one this was — that firing should not be as big a deal as we make it. For one thing, it is over quickly, and then the person leaves and a new chapter begins. Also, firing can rarely be a mistake, and, even if it is, it can be rectified quickly by a new hire. 

I have developed a few rules in my own career that may help with this singularly indelicate task.

1. Never fire anyone in anger. I have yelled down the hall at an employee who walked out on me, but I would not say the words. Anger can lead to mistakes, and in the heat of the moment, firing is not a smart idea.

2. When you fire someone, lead with a sentence that lets the person know he or she is being terminated. This is not the time to ask about family or hobbies, etc. It is a time to let the employee know the employment is over. Trying to gloss it over with nice phrases may lead the person to ask, “If I am such a nice or competent person, how come I’m being fired?” The person’s lawyer may ask this, as well.

3. There is never a good time to fire someone, but Friday afternoon (the single most preferred time) is the worst. Give the employee a break. Do it earlier in the week. It gives you and the now ex-employee time to regroup before the weekend.

4. Don’t be tempted to let a terminated employee work another minute. This seems like the humane thing to do, but, face it, once the employee is told, the time will be used against you.

5. Don’t be inhumane. I know of a large company that ships empty boxes to a site where it is planning a layoff. Before the start of the day, computer access is cut off for the about-to-be terminated employees, who will find empty boxes in their offices waiting for their personal belongings. Nice. Granted, I can think of numerous reasons why this might be a good corporate strategy, but people who have given some part of their lives to a company need to be treated better than that.

When employees are underperforming, their peers know it and they will thank you for recognizing it. You would be surprised by how quickly morale lifts after an underperformer is let go. •

Dave Mount is the owner of Westaff in Burlington.

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