Fired. It’s an ugly word. It conjures painful images of bowed men and women clearing desks into cardboard boxes and trudging away into the future’s uncertainty. Firing is a reality of business, as immutable as a law of nature. Employers have to recognize that unfortunately, for the sake of the whole enterprise, sometimes a part that isn’t functioning needs to be cut. That’s why they call it “severance.”
Just because it’s an ugly word, however, firing doesn’t have to be an ugly process. Because it’s a reality of business, it’s a professional’s responsibility to do the deed with a certain level of grace. With the right tactics (and the right tact), firing can be done in a way that is as humane and compassionate as it is necessary for the survival of your business. It can be done kindly, allowing both yourself and the person you’re firing to move forward with dignity and optimism.
Preparing the Ground
The first rule of firing someone is that it shouldn’t be done until it has to be. Letting someone go should be an absolute last resort, both from a humane perspective and a financial one. The cost of firing and replacing someone can be more than many an entrepreneur realizes. Between the cost of severance and the cost and time required to find, sign and train someone else, firing an employee is also a blow to the employer. If it can be avoided by successfully addressing the employee’s shortcomings, that’s the best course of action.
It’s rarely appropriate to fire someone suddenly. A firing that comes as a surprise to the employee is automatically a sign that the employer has failed in their due diligence. Unless something very egregious (illegal activity, harassment, etc.) has occurred, a dismissal should be the culmination of a process of evaluation, attempted remediation, and clear communication from the employer about the employee’s shortcomings.
Like a prosecutor building a case, you’ll have to carefully document and organize valid evidence to support the claim that an employee is a detriment to the business. No one should be fired on a whim- not only can this constitute unlawful termination, it may actually constitute a poor decision, having not been properly thought out.
Instead, your business should have in place an evaluative process that begins on every employee’s first day. There needs to be a way to keep track of each employee’s progress (or lack thereof) through regular checks on productivity, sales, or other appropriate metrics. This way, when someone needs to be fired, it can be clear that it’s for an objective set of reasons, backed up by objective data.
A good employer takes the time to regularly measure progress against expectations in a way that’s collaborative and mutually beneficial, rather than just hoping the employee will do well and kicking them to the curb when they don’t. Here at Business Republic, for example, we have a quarterly meeting with members of staff for exactly this purpose. Every three months, we sit down with each employee to assess their achievements and address anything that might be subpar. These meetings are not negative or punitive, and include positive feedback.
Not only should there be formalized evaluative sit-downs, there should also be less formal check-ins, always with the goal of maintaining a running evaluation. These interstitial checks can be done electronically, through Google Drive or email, as long as they fulfill the need to fairly measure employee performance- both laudable and poor.
The overall goal is to avoid arbitrariness, both in fact and appearance. To fire someone for no reason (or for reasons that aren’t clear to the person being fired) is at best sloppy and at worst despotic. It’s a sign of the kind of unprofessionalism that is virtually guaranteed to do serious damage in the long run, creating a culture of wariness and defensiveness that makes a team effort impossible.
By consistently reaching out to employees, an employer not only ensures that dismissals are warranted, but creates the opportunity to avoid them by encouraging desirable habits and finding solutions to problems.
The Firing Process
When an employee fails to meet expectations, that failure needs to be tracked, documented, discussed and investigated before the final dismissal. What constitutes demonstrable failure will vary depending on the type of business, so it’s important to have clear expectations against which employees can be measured in a fair and consistent way.
When you notice a consistent problem, first operate under the assumption that the employee in question is unaware of their mistakes. Meet with the employee, identify the problem, and agree on a firm and specific correction plan. Included in the correction plan should be exactly what’s expected to change, and specific consequences for continued failure. This way, the employee is given a reasonable opportunity to shape up before being shipped out.
Documentation is key to this process. As long as there is a clear record indicating that demonstrable failure occurred, that the failure was addressed to the employee by the employer, that a plan to correct the underlying problem was implemented, and that the employee failed to hold up their end of that agreement, the employer is unimpeachable. With a proper paper (or electronic) trail, it will always be clear that while firing someone is your responsibility, it isn’t your choice.
Lastly, the process of replacing the employee should begin as early as possible. Ideally, you should hire someone well before the final dismissal, so that the replacement can move seamlessly into the departed’s role. A temporary overlap is preferable to scrambling to train and acclimate a new hire in a short period.
The Final Act
The final dismissal should be done with the seriousness that the occasion warrants. It should be done privately, and it should be done in person. By this point, the decision has long been made, the justifications are clear and well documented, and all that’s left to do is make it official.
In your final meeting with the employee, explain clearly and honestly why they’re being let go. There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat or deflect the truth. In fact, anything less than the absolute truth is a disservice- to you, because the firing must be justified, and to the employee, who deserves the opportunity not to repeat the same mistakes in the next phase of their career.
Confirm with the employee the severance details that were agreed on upon hiring, and honor that agreement. Make it clear that this decision is a strictly professional, not personal, one. Explain to them exactly what made them a poor fit for your business, with the implication that they may be perfectly suited to succeed elsewhere.
Be polite and respectful, but don’t allow the employee to engage you in any argument or debate on the matter. Shake their hand, and wish them well. Afterward, send a follow-up email. Thank your former employee for their time, reiterate your well wishes, and offer a letter of employment (Different from a letter of recommendation, it simply states that the employee worked for you, which can be valuable or even necessary for some application processes).
Business, like life, has its ups and downs. Even the best business people occasionally face periods of poor sales, projects that don’t work out, and – yes- regrettable hires. Use this opportunity to reflect on why this particular employee didn’t work out, and use what you learn to make more precise personnel choices in the future.
Done correctly, a firing can be as much an opportunity as a crisis, for both parties.The way you let someone go can be the be the difference between their future success and their continued failure. More importantly, the respect you with which you do it is part of what defines you as a professional.