Is Firing Someone Required to Be Painful for Both Parties?

The impetus for writing this article came from two recent experiences with two of my friends. Both were terminated. One for alleged poor performance (despite the fact that she had never been counseled and was in fact on sick leave at the time), and one because the start-up facility for which she worked abruptly closed. Both were senior executives. Both were devoted, hardworking employees who are now enraged and threatening to sue their former employers. Why are they incensed? One could argue that it is because they have lost their jobs, which is entirely understandable. However, the primary event that sparked their outrage and pushed them down the legal path (in both cases) was being informed of their dismissals via email. Yes, that is correct via email! They were never afforded the decency of a face-to-face meeting.

When confronted with the prospect of firing someone, many managers forget or are unaware of the emotions experienced by the person being fired. They are also often unaware of the behavior that results from these emotions. It has been well established that the death of a loved one, the dissolution of a marriage or long-term relationship, and the loss of a job all have an equal and comparable effect on one’s emotions. Consider how you felt when one of your dear relatives or friends died. That is exactly how people feel when they are suddenly and unexpectedly laid off from their jobs.

According to psychologists, this “grief cycle” consists of five stages: shock, resistance (often manifested as anger), acceptance (of the current situation), exploration (of new opportunities), and commitment (to a new future). Is it possible to manage any of these emotions via email?

I vividly recall the first time I had to fire someone as a manager. It was for substandard performance, and I was terrified. I could not sleep the night before, unsure of what I would say or how she would react. I conducted the interview in the morning with great apprehension and fear. I was unsure how the interview went, but was relieved when it concluded. I then took a break for lunch, but was unable to consume anything. I was unaware of the “five stages” at the time; all I knew was that I needed to do the right thing for the organization and the employee. When I returned from my break, I discovered a box of chocolates on my desk, along with a very nice note from the employee expressing her gratitude for my courtesy and kindness. I suppose intuitively, I must have been correct.

Now, based on years of experience, I am aware of two things about terminating an employee:

To begin, the individual must always maintain a healthy self-esteem. This is one of the most fundamental and vital needs that every person has (emailing someone, or even worse as I heard since starting this article, texting, sends a clear message that they are not worthy of a face to face discussion)

2. Secondly, it is critical to recognize that all people will experience the five stages of grief (often at varying rates), and it is our role and responsibility as a manager to assist them in progressing through these stages, particularly the first two, which are most likely to occur while they are still with us.

How do you accomplish this? To begin, as is customary when writing an article of this nature, I conducted web research. Regrettably, there was not much there. There appeared to be a plethora of articles about the legal requirements and many about the steps to take under “firing someone.” For instance, according to one article, the following steps should be taken: Provide notice and document, document, document! Appropriate timing, Prepare the necessary paperwork, Make no attempt to go it alone (ensure you have someone from HR there), Assure confidentiality, Be succinct, Take care with your tone, Solicit feedback, Provide an appropriate send-off. Only a few of these steps would correspond to the five stages of grief. Numerous tasks could probably be accomplished via email with the same effect and result! I am curious as to what “feedback” the manager would receive if these steps were followed – would there truly be a “Good send-off”?

I am not implying that we should not address some of these. For instance, you must meet all documentary and legal requirements specific to your country and organization. However, keep in mind that the terminated employee is, like you, a person with feelings and emotions that must be managed.

Here are some suggestions for the next time you have to fire someone (assuming you have met all other requirements):

• Before taking any action, consider the following: “How would I feel if my boss came to me today and told me I am fired!” Make a list of adjectives that best describe your emotions.

• If you were fired, how would you like your boss to handle the situation? What do you want him or her to do and say? Make a note of some of your thoughts.

• Now, make a list of the words that best describe how you feel about being forced to fire someone. Review all of the words you have scribbled so far and select the two or three most powerful. Additionally, consider how you would like to be treated in similar situations.

• Create a script for the conversation’s opening using the two or three words you discovered. For instance, “This is extremely difficult for me.” I am nervous and concerned that I will not get it right.”

• The following section of your opening script will vary according to the circumstances. For instance, in a “lay off” situation, the statement might read as follows: “I have been advised that I must terminate the employment of a number of individuals. Regrettably, your name is on that list”. Or, in the case of a non-performance issue, it could be something like this: “We discussed my expectations for your performance and, unfortunately, they remain unmet. It truly saddens me (or whatever your emotions are) to have to terminate your employment”.

• Exercise caution. You can only script the first few lines of the interview, but they are critical because they set the tone for the remainder of the interview.

• It is highly likely that the employee will switch back and forth between “shock” and “resistance” throughout the remainder of the interview. Give clear and succinct reasons for the termination, but avoid engaging in a discussion about justifying your (or your employer’s) reasons. This will maintain the employee in either of the first two stages and will prevent them from progressing. Only genuine listening and direct questioning (rather than reasoning) will assist the employee in moving to the acceptance stage.

One factor that is frequently overlooked when terminating an employee is that the manner in which it is done can have just as much impact (positive or negative) on the remaining employees. They will be watching (and invariably receiving firsthand information from a colleague) to determine how well or poorly the process was managed. The people who remain in the organization, whom I am assuming you want to retain, get a good look at both the manager’s and the organization’s true people management abilities when they are faced with the prospect of firing someone. They are almost certain to inquire, “Could this have happened to me?”

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