Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : February 2005

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER:

BY PAT YEVICS  

"How to Fire Someone"
By Michael Bryant

Note: This month’s column was written by Michael Bryant of Career Transition Services. He was a well-received speaker at the 2004 Solo and Small Firm Conference. His article is about how to fire someone as professionally and painlessly as possible. I know this is an issue that many solo and small firms struggle with, and I think Bryant’s suggestions can help. - PY

We’ll assume you have seen the warning signs and have tried to work things out. In spite of the best efforts of both parties, the time has come to end the relationship. The question is how to do so in a respectful, professional way.

Corporate outplacement has always been an important part of my business. I have worked with scores of employers teaching them how to fire someone and have counseled hundreds of people after they have been fired.

Both sides have taught me a great deal about doing this thing called firing “right”.

Let’s face it: unless you like to kick puppies and smack babies, the thought of taking away someone’s livelihood is not a pleasant thought. The person doing the firing often has a pretty sleepless night leading up to the conversation. They know it has to be done, but they often don’t know quite what to do or say.

I find people have four basic questions:

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What do I say?

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When do I say it?

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What do we do after I say it?

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What do I say to the other employees and customers/clients?

What Do I Say?
The best way to tell somebody is to just come right out and tell them. “We’ve decided to make a change.” Or, “It’s not working out, and we’re going to need to let you go.” People already know when a relationship is not going well, so most of the time this will not come as a total shock.

Because firing someone creates anxiety, people often go to one of two extremes. On the one hand, they can be very cold and callous: “Your services are no longer needed here. There is a security guard outside who will escort you to your car. We will send your last check and personal items to your home. That’s all I have to say.”

On the other hand, they can be so vague that the person doesn’t even know they have been fired! I remember working with a client who was a classic conflict avoider. The day he was going to fire his employee, he asked me to come to his office so I could meet with that individual and help them begin the transition process. At the appointed time, the ex-employee knocked on my door. As we sat down to talk I asked how he was doing. He said he was a tad confused as to who I was. I asked how his conversation with his boss had just gone.

“Not good,” he said. “He was pretty upset. There are obviously some things I have to work on or I could be in big trouble.”
I excused myself and went to the boss’s office. “Did you tell him?” I asked.
“Well, not exactly,” he responded. “I mean I didn’t want to upset him.”
“But it is upsetting to be fired!” I replied. “It’s not supposed to feel good!”
He called the employee back into his office and told him. He was right; it wasn’t pleasant, but it had to be done.

When Do I Say It?
Not on a Friday, if you can help it. When you fire someone at the end of a week, you sentence them to two days (Saturday and Sunday) of self-torment. Because most people don’t conduct business on weekends, they spend that time creating unbelievable worst-case scenarios. By releasing them into the world at the beginning of the week, they may actually have the time to make a few phone calls or set up a meeting or two.

Losing one’s job also means losing one’s structure. Giving someone time during the workweek to make contacts and begin to create a plan allows them to begin creating a new structure. And structure makes all the difference in a successful transition.

What Do We Do After I Say It?
If they want to talk, listen to them. Don’t argue, don’t get defensive, and don’t feel that you have to explain or justify your decision. You are the one in control while they may be feeling somewhat out of control. There are certain logistical matters that may need to be discussed, such as what do they do with their keys, what happens to their health insurance, who will be handling their work or when their last day will be. It is very helpful to anticipate these questions in advance. That way, you can put all the information in writing. After you answer their questions, simply give them the memo explaining what you have just told them.

Losing one’s job can be a shocking, even surreal experience. The reason for the memo is to make sure they remember what you just said. When you’re finished with the conversation, if they want to leave work, let them do so. (Because going back to their desk may be difficult, you might want to consider speaking to them at the end of the day rather than the beginning.)

One of the last points to discuss is when they will be leaving. The sooner they can transition their work the better. They should not be on the job more than a few days after you have spoken with them. Keeping someone around for weeks after they have lost their job is like divorcing someone and continuing to live in the same house. It’s uncomfortable for everyone.

What Do I Say to the Other Employees and Customers/Clients?
Employees have one primary concern: Is my job in jeopardy? Customers and clients have one primary concern: Will my needs continue to be met? Knowing this can help you decide what to say.

After you have spoken with the dismissed employee, you may want to call the affected employees together. Tell them their coworker has left or is leaving and will be pursuing other opportunities. Tell them you wish the person well and let them know that the person’s leaving will not be affecting anyone else’s job. If work is temporarily being assigned, you should have already spoken to the people who will be involved. If yours is a small organization, the odds are you will be late with this information. News of this import usually spreads throughout an organization pretty quickly.

Customers and clients also need to be told in a timely manner. Simply let them know that the person they were working with will be leaving and that they will be in the able hands of another member of your staff.

The most important thing to remember when talking to others is the less said, the better.

Eighty percent of the time, a person is fired because they did not see eye-to-eye with someone in a position of power. Most people are not fired because they are bad or immoral or dishonest. Being fired is not anything to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary in an organization. When it has to be done, it should be handled as professionally and compassionately as possible. Having a plan and following it can make this unpleasant task much less unpleasant. 

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: February, 2005

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