How NOT to Fire Someone

by Derek Loosvelt | May 10, 2017

  • My Vault

Although President Trump might be a man with a mission, it’s becoming increasingly clear to people on all points of the political spectrum that he’s a man with very little management prowess. In fact, if you were to write a book about what makes a great manager, or even a passable manager, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than Trump of what NOT to do in the C-suite. From his loose grasp of the law and mishandling of various executive orders to his lack of decision-making transparency and lack of knowledge about bills he claims to support, Trump has shown us, time and again, in a very short time, how not to lead, how not to manage, how not to act like an exemplary executive.

Which brings us to yesterday’s ouster of FBI Director James Comey. Trump, in his hasty and suspicious dismissal of Comey, has once again shown us what not to do as a manager and leader. The firing of Comey seems to have gone against just about every rule of how to fire someone with tact and grace.

As for the tactful and graceful way to perform the often difficult task of having to let someone go, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, there are four main things you should do: 1) “Start by creating a transition plan”; 2) “Run it by a jury first”; 3) “Take it step by step”; and 4) “Avoid misdirected compassion.”

(As you read on, I encourage you to think of Trump’s firing of Comey, perhaps asking yourself, Did Trump follow these rules? Should he have? Could he have? Why did or didn’t he? Etc.)

As for creating a transition plan, that involves “deliberately” choosing the exact time and day on which you’re going to make the firing, “putting company interests first,” “planning the transition so as to do the least damage to company and coworkers,” and “checking the succession plan for an internal candidate.”

And so, this means that once you decide to fire someone, there needs to be quite a lot of thought involved into when and where you execute the firing, as well as who is going to replace this person.

As for running your firing by a jury, that involves the following (pay particularly close attention to this bit):

To make sure that you’re on solid ground in terminating an employee, imagine yourself defending your action in front of a jury. Assume that you are on the witness stand and the employee’s lawyer is attempting to prove that the firing was unjust, unfair, and vindictive.
Look for anything that could be twisted to suggest that the real reason for the termination is not the individual’s performance but rather a pretext or personal grudge.

In other words, if your case for firing this person isn’t airtight, you might need to rethink your position on this person’s employment. Not doing so can very likely come back to haunt you (perhaps in a court of law!), not to mention it would then mean you could very well be on the other end of this uncomfortable workplace transaction.

With respect to taking it step by step, the main thing to remember is that “bungled terminations usually result from acting without thinking.” Sound familiar? In any case, with this in mind, here are the steps to take when it comes to firing someone with tact: a) get right to the point (“skip the small talk”); b) break the news quickly and use the past tense (“Say, ‘Your employment has been terminated,’ not, ‘will be terminated.’”); c) make sure to listen to what your (former) employee has to say once you break the news (“Your response will be more effective if you know how he is taking the news”); d) cover all the essentials about what happens next (“pay, benefits, unused vacation time, references, outplacement, explanations to coworkers, ongoing projects, etc.”); and e) wrap it up with grace (“Go to the exit together, shake hands, wish her well, and part with both of your dignities intact.”).

Finally, with avoiding misdirected compassion, the thing to keep in mind is not the employee you've just fired, but the many other employees that you've hired and not fired (at least, not yet). This might sound odd at first, but once you give it some thought, it starts to make sense.

Most managers I know are empathetic and considerate people. But when the need arises to terminate a subordinate their compassion is often misdirected. They become so concerned about the adverse impact on the employee to be discharged that they forget about all the people who manage to do their jobs and meet our expectations in spite of having as many personal problems and difficulties as the terminate has.

Of course, if you’re not an empathetic and considerate manager, then you'll have little problem with this aspect of firing someone. In which case, your egotism and self-interest might, for once, do you some good.

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Filed Under: Finance | Salary & Benefits | Workplace Issues

Tags: donald trump | firing employees | government | management tips | unemployment

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