The Art of Firing People: What You Are Tempted to Do Versus How You Do It

There sure is a lot of angry talk about firing people these days. I try to stay away from the raging emotion, ideology, and irrationality of politics. But I feel compelled to comment on one claim that I keep encountering – one sometimes stated openly and sometimes implied – about firing practices in the private sector that is distorted, misguided, and often downright wrong.

Here’s the alleged “lesson” that bugs me: The practice we see in Washington of firing people in sudden, impersonal, and often humiliating ways is sometimes portrayed as a reflection of how things are done and ought to be done in “real” businesses.

I beg to differ. Yes, there are often good reasons that people ought to be removed from their jobs. Yet (at least outside of politics), both the research evidence and wisdom from skilled leaders suggests that firing people in humane and caring ways is best for the organization, the people doing the firing, and those who are sent packing.

Leaders express compassion to the person who is being fired and when they discuss the person with others. Rather than bad-mouthing people they fire, smart bosses usually do the opposite

Dignified and civilized

In The Asshole Survival Guide, I quote veteran senior executive and venture capitalist Michael Dearing on this point. Michael has fired quite a few people over the years. It was part of his job as a senior executive at companies including Filene’s Basement in Boston and eBay in Silicon Valley, and as co-founder and CEO of a chain of shoe stores in Los Angeles that went out of business.

Now, as an early stage venture capitalist at Harrison Metal, he sometimes has to remove CEOs or pull funding from the start ups he invests in for business reasons. But, as Michael puts it, “there is a difference between what you do, and how you do it.” 

Michael’s goal is to fire people in the most dignified and civilized way, to treat the person with respect, to thank them for their efforts and accomplishments, and often, to help them find a new job that is well-suited to their talents. Michael treats them with dignity both because he is a caring person and because it is in his best interests as a hardcore capitalist.

Art of firing

Michael’s experience dovetails with the lessons I learned early in my academic career, when my research focused on the processes of organizational decline and death. I studied how humane leaders implemented tough decisions such as firing, layoffs, and closures. I discuss such lessons in Good Boss, Bad Boss and in this McKinsey interview and video.

In short, the four hallmarks of leaders who do firings or layoffs well are:

  • They give affected people as much prediction about how the process will unfold – which protects them from unpleasant surprises, helps free them from being in a constant state of fear, and allows them to plan their lives.
  • They create understanding by explaining why the decision was made to people who are sent packing and to their surviving colleagues.
  • They help fired people exercise control over how and when they leave. They might, for example, give people a say over the wording of the announcement to their colleagues or the press. Or they might allow them to decide whether to leave immediately or stay around for a few days. Their goal is to do little things that enable people to feel less helpless or ashamed about losing their jobs. 
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