This is a summary of what I’ve learned about firing people. I’ve had to do that difficult, unpleasant, but occasionally absolutely necessary task 12 times, and have supported other managers doing it an additional 10 times. My experience spans a total of 180 people employed over 15 years. All of these situations were careful decisions made for specific, individual reasons. I have no experience letting someone go for lack of work in the company (“layoffs”).
This is not a post about the process of reaching the conclusion that you need to let someone go. That is a complex topic in and of itself. This post covers what to consider once the decision is made.
I’ve written from the perspective of the manager. It’s organized by stakeholders and events: the manager, the person being let go, preparation, the event itself, clients, and other employees. It’s written in an intentionally “thought-bite” style, meant to inspire further reflection, not justify or explain every point.
A company that never lets anyone go either has a perfect hiring process and employees who never change, or is willing to tolerate and hide problems and leaders who are shirking their responsibility. Letting people go is one of the natural consequences of imperfect hiring (and a motivator, for managers, to take their time and hire carefully).
Being an “at-will employer” means an employee can be fired at any time with no cause or justification necessary. The only exceptions to this rule are for certain well-defined reasons, like racial discrimination or retaliation for claiming harassment. Sounds like it should be easy to let someone go, right? In my opinion, being an at-will employer doesn’t get you off the hook for following a careful, thoughtful process in making the decision, or for implementing it.
Every employee who walks into your office each morning is exercising their own free will and power. They can leave anytime they want. In a software development consultancy, most of them can also get another job easily. They have real power. In my experience, this is often not how unhappy or problematic employees see their situation. They may feel that you have all the power. They may see themselves as powerless or trapped. You, on the other hand, can’t coerce them to work. You don’t own or control them. Your only power, and your responsibility, is to take the difficult action of firing them.
Here are two ways to frame the problem of letting someone go:
1. Bad framing: Right/wrong
For example, “This company policy or expectation is wrong; my behavior is right”. Or, “This policy is right, your behavior is wrong”.
2. Better framing: Misalignment
For example, “The company has needs, expectations, values and standards that aren’t negotiable; you seem to have other needs or values or priorities”. A difference between these two sets doesn’t make one party right and one wrong, just different.
You: The manager
Be confident: you’ve faithfully executed a good process, giving feedback, radical candor, help, and concrete ideas for what needs to improve. You’ve been patient; second and maybe third chances have been extended.
Having to do the unpleasant, difficult task of firing someone contributes to your moral authority to lead an office. Consider that you owe it to everyone else in your office to do the hard but right thing—you are accountable to them for this aspect of your job. No one is irreplaceable. You can deal with short-term pain like project holes and revenue loss. Think long-term.
Remember (but don’t necessarily share) that working at your company is a privilege, not a right. It’s also not the best job for everyone. Let those beliefs give you confidence.
Afterwards, give yourself some time to adjust and recover. It’s a hard thing to do, even when it’s the right thing to do. Cut yourself some slack, find someone to listen; have a beer, be a combination of sad and relieved.
Them: The person being fired
Some people need a push, as they’re unhappy but frozen. For these people, the big moment may come as a relief. They know it’s a bad match, they know they have been underperforming, or causing problems, or unhappy. Some people are just stuck; this goes along with feeling powerless.
Some people may feel dissonance between their own unhappiness and having a good job at a great company. This may be another reason they are stuck: “How could I leave? What if my next employer isn’t as good?”
The person you fire will not remember what you say after you make it clear they are being fired. Shock, concern, humiliation, etc, reduces information retention. This is an extremely personal event for them. Don’t count on them to remember much after this point.
Expect they may claim to be surprised, regardless of what has transpired. Consider that they may genuinely be surprised, and that this is part of their problem. If they don’t express surprise in the meeting, they absolutely will do it at home, in private, and at the bar.
Rejection is hard. Everyone has an ego to protect. Look for opportunities to let them save face without wavering on your decision or plan.
Even with bad actors (sources of negativity, undue or unfair criticism, spreading poison, assuming the worst from every event or decision, etc), remember that they aren’t evil people.
Allow yourself to feel empathy for another human being experiencing something that’s very tough. But don’t let that empathy take you, via misplaced guilt for your decision, into a place where you have to “prove” they are bad, or you had no choice, or it’s their fault. Have your reasons, know your reasons, keep it simple, stand firm, communicate clearly.
The hardest situations are when you’ve come to the conclusion that the person you’re firing genuinely wants to be a good employee, but is either not capable or is held back by other issues; jerks are easier to fire, but less common.
Before the meeting
- Have a communication plan: who, when, what message, ordering.
- Determine timing—absolute and relative—of all actions.
- Decide on practical details in advance: benefits, laptops, software, severance, vacation time, transition, accounts, health insurance, stock, etc. We have a template of all the issues to consider, and some guidelines, but no hard-and-fast policies. Each case should be considered individually.
- Write an email to the office to send immediately after the meeting. In your communications with others, respect the privacy of the person you let go, but don’t shy away from explaining at a high-level what the cause was and the process that you followed.
- Write out talking points for the meeting. Keep it simple and short.
Consider sharing the news a few days in advance with a few, carefully chosen, discreet colleagues. It’ll give you confidence about the reception the news is likely to receive. It also may help to have a few people who aren’t surprised as they’ve had time to ponder in advance.
You need to take their job, not their dignity. Be resolute in the first, kind in the second. The Crucial Conversation dictum of “start from the heart” is good to keep in mind, but also be very clear and strong on what needs to be done.
Have someone in the room with you. The lead person delivers the message, the second observes and supports. Both should know the plan well.
Favor end-of-day, and when other employees aren’t around. Make it easy for someone to leave without humiliation or drama.
Avoid using the word fired. Prefer words/phrases like separate, let go, you need to leave, time for you to find a job that’s a better match, etc.
Don’t get sucked into arguments over facts and details and events. This isn’t a debate.
Have a printed document for them to take away that summarizes what you’ll do, and what you expect them to do.
Don’t negotiate. Have everything thought through, and drive the conversation, next steps and actions decisively. Should there be something you want to change or reconsider, you can always do that later. Don’t promise anything in the meeting, as it’s an emotional event for you, too.
Use the power of silence. Don’t feel like you need to fill it and therefore talk too much. Allow them to absorb the information, ask questions, then close it down. These meetings are usually short.
If you’re willing to be a reference, make it clear what you’ll say. If you’re not, don’t volunteer anything in this area.
If it helps, and you genuinely feel it, it’s okay to introduce some distance between you as a person and you as manager. As a person, you feel bad about the decision. As a manager, you feel obligated, responsible, and confident. Be careful how you play this.
Prepare for tears. Think through what they mean, how you’ll react. Be thoughtful and have tissues in the room somewhere. Also, consider that the tears may be your own.
Clients will have specific, short-term concerns (deadlines, disruption, knowledge loss, ramp-up, etc). They won’t see it as their business or concern about the decision you’re making and the long-term impact.
Don’t do anything that brings into question the quality of work done in the past by the person being fired. (Unless that is in fact the issue, then deal with it honestly and take your lumps to make it right.)
Make it clear that this is a decision you’ve made for the good of the company, and that you’re committed and already working to make sure to hold them harmless. Have your Plan B already figured out before you talk to the client.
Consider a future offer, as part of your project transition plan, to absorb some of the ramp-in time for a new team member. Remind them that new people on projects is often its own good thing (fresh, excited, new perspective, different experience, beginner’s mind).
Experienced clients, or inexperienced clients who reflect on the decision later, will appreciate working with a company that has high standards they enforce and a culture they protect. They’ll also be sympathetic to situations when you’re firing someone for the poison they spread and its impact on the team, office, and project. Everyone knows what that’s like to live with.
Expect that other employees will be appreciative, but quiet. They’ve likely seen the same problems you’ve been trying to address. Taking action reaffirms their faith that the company cares about the employee experience, brand, and clients.
Your decision and action shows that there are more important things than billable hours, revenue, and profit; that you are willing to make hard decisions, do hard things.
Tackle the issue of surprise head-on with other employees; if you’re confident the person you let go has no genuine, reasonable claim at being surprised, then make that clear. Other employees want to know that lightning bolts don’t come out of the blue. Your employees have a sense of fairness which the “I was totally surprised!” narrative challenges. Meet this head on, even to the point of discussing the phenomenon and predicting it.
Anticipate social connections within the office and talk with people who were particularly close to the departing person, privately and directly, immediately afterwards. Don’t be afraid of telling them why you’re talking to them: you value and care about them, recognize they have a close friendship, want to give them a chance to talk or ask questions.
If you’ve treated the person you’re firing fairly and respectfully, you won’t lose other employees. People can separate their work and social roles and relationships.
Use the pre-written email to inform the whole office, so everyone gets the same message. Send it very soon after the firing event. Lack of transparency here can be very damaging. Do everything possible so the first knowledge of the event comes from you, not a rumor, or another employee, or social media, or the person you fired.
The next day, address the office as a group, in person, repeating the content of your email, adding appropriate color commentary, allowing yourself to be vulnerable (these things are hard, I feel it’s my obligation to everyone else, not right/wrong, makes me sad, also a little angry that I had to do this, etc). Take questions. Offer to discuss privately. Express confidence that separation is disruptive, but is most often a starting point for a better situations for both parties.
Firing someone is a heavy responsibility. Thinking through the event in advance helps you make it less painful for everyone involved. Smooth, thoughtful execution really matters.
If you’re avoiding the decision, or taking action, remember: you get what you put up with.
Expect that once you’re through it, you’ll criticize yourself for not taking action sooner. You’ll feel like you let a bad situation go too long. You may have. But it’s also easy to say that in hindsight, and never easy or obvious as these situations unfold.
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018
- Elevating & distributing “glue work” flows out of our core principles - October 18, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 2: How the Atomic Plan & our ESPP work - July 16, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 1: Context, motivations, and accomplishments to date - May 17, 2018