Firing people sucks terribly. It’s a sign that you screwed up and the other person screwed up as well. Even worse is laying someone off, where they are not at fault at all, and sometimes it’s entirely because of you. I’ve frequently thought it would be useful to write a post on firing people, but I’ve always kicked the can down the road since it’s an emotionally difficult topic. This week though I didn’t have anything else that came to mind to write about, so I figured it was time.
Letting someone go has got to be the worst part of a career in management. I consistently question all my career choices before I have to let someone go, and I tend to be a useless and unproductive human during the days leading up to it and immediately after. Somehow in my 12 years in e-commerce, I’ve personally had to let nearly 100 people go, and it never gets any easier. I detest the folks that brag about firing people so much that I ask manager candidates how they feel about firing people in their initial job interviews. It’s a great way to gauge what kind of person they are in my opinion. So with all this pain around letting people go, I thought I’d write up a list of the techniques I use to make things less painful.
- Recognize the severity of the situation. The first thing to do is acknowledge that this is going to be a giant shock to the individual in most cases, even if they suspected it or know it’s coming. This can impact parent’s ability to provide for their kids, set off a chain of events resulting in divorces, bankruptcy, loss of custody of children, etc. This is not to say you should feel responsible for these things, just understand that this is going to likely be a very severe conversation and you need to be respectful of that and not rush or have a light demeanor.
- Do it yourself. I’ve never liked asking HR or someone else to perform an employment termination for me. I feel if I was involved in the hiring or at least the ongoing coaching of the person, I need to pay the emotional price of failing to make it work. These are people’s lives we’re messing with when we let them go, so I never want that to be an afterthought for me.
- Do it in the beginning of the week. I used to think Fridays were the best days for these things, but after researching it I learned the earlier in the week the better it is for the employee. That’s because if you do it on a Friday they have to sit and stew all weekend before they can start the unemployment process or do anything requiring places to be open. So I tend to do it on Tuesdays when I can. I also like to do it early in the day, so that I can gauge the morale for the rest of the day and try to spend some time on the floor reassuring people.
- Be firm, but compassionate. I’ve made the mistake of coming in too soft in the beginning of the conversation and giving people the impression this was a situation they could argue their way out of. It’s important to be completely firm in your presentation, but to not be so stoic that you appear to not care or understand the impact. I always start the conversation with the clear message that employment will be terminated effective immediately, and that the decision is final. After that, I give the reasons and explain anything else the person needs to know about the situation. Throughout though I don’t try to pretend that the conversation is easy for me, or that this isn’t a big deal.
- Prepare documentation for them to walk out with. The employee will likely be in shock as I mentioned before, so the odds are good that they won’t remember a word you said to them about any details of the situation, such as how to get unemployment, whether there is severance, how PTO will be paid out, etc. I always hand the employee a folder with all that information in it, so that they don’t have to reach out to us with questions once they have recovered from the shock.
- Have a witness present. This is just standard HR best practices, but I’ve also found that having a witness in the room, though obviously uncomfortable for them, will usually cause the whole ordeal to be much less dramatic, so there’s really no downside.
- Do not get into an argument over the reasons. Absorb the attacks. Different personalities will react differently obviously, and in many cases, the reaction is insults, accusations, disbelief, conspiracy theories, denial, and all that fun stuff. Once things begin going down that road I don’t attempt to argue or even defend myself or the company. I just remain silent and allow for it to fizzle out. I learned this lesson the hard way, by arguing for over 2(!) hours in a termination of someone that was blatantly defrauding us and was denying it.
- Allow the person to walk themselves out if possible. I feel as though most people disagree with me on this one, but unless it’s a hostile situation or a bulk layoff, I let the person leave after packing up their own things and saying goodbye to whoever they want. I don’t follow them around or have someone else do that. It just seems to me so undignified to fire someone and then trust them so little that they need constant supervision out the door as though they were a psychopath. Obviously, if things go sour during the meeting and they are creating a scene that’s a different story, but that’s never happened to me before.
- Inform the remaining team. How you tell the remaining employees is of the utmost importance for morale. If you blow this you can have everyone terrified and looking for new jobs. We always send out an email immediately after, or if it was someone in a leadership role, I have an all-hands meeting immediately. We do this quickly so that people don’t think there are more people getting fired that day. We then discuss the impact, and how it will change in the future and what the plan is. I try to be as transparent as possible without telling everyone specific reasons as to why it happened unless it’s a layoff, in which case I am clear on that.
For layoffs that are in no way the fault of the employee, I add these steps to the process.
- Reach out to your local network to see if anyone could use the employee. I try to attend e-commerce meetups in the Dallas area, although there aren’t many. Over the last 2.5 years that I’ve been in Dallas though I’ve been able to build up a decent list of local e-commerce contacts. In some cases, I just reach out straight to their HR team to develop a relationship. For any layoffs I’ve ever had to do I’ve been able to line up multiple interviews with other internet retailers before the employee was even aware of the layoff so that they can walk out with 1-3 job interviews that week. This is a win/win, since these contacts are getting good leads, and the employee isn’t left starting from scratch in their job hunt. It also goes a long way for the employees that remain, knowing we care about our people and try our best to help them even in these terrible circumstances.
- Write and include a letter of recommendation. This is the least you can do for the person. I include a printed version, and then email them a pdf version as well. In the past, I’ve also put them on LinkedIn and Zip Recruiter when asked. I tend to be sceptical when I interview candidates that hopped around a lot on their resume due to “layoffs”, so having an actual letter of recommendation from a company from which they were laid off would make a big difference for me.
- Have an all-hands meeting immediately after. In the case of layoffs, I always have an all-hands meeting immediately afterwards. This is to address concerns, stop rumors, and explain the reasons behind it and the outlook for the future. I’m always completely transparent in these meetings and try to alleviate the understandable concerns when these things happen.
Following all of these guidelines keeps me sane when I have to let people go. There’s no cure I’ve found to make it not miserable, but every little bit helps. It’s a unique moment to show your humanity when it can make a big difference, so it’s worth thinking about and refining.
What tips can you offer to improve the process? This would be a great topic to get feedback in the comments on!