When Miriam arrived at the office of the nonprofit where she worked one recent Friday morning, she found an invitation from the head of human resources in her inbox. The HR director and Miriam’s supervisor were waiting for her in a small conference room. As her boss remained silent, Miriam says, the HR director told her: “Your supervisor sent you to this class a few months ago, and she doesn’t feel your behavior has improved, so today’s going to be your last day here.” She had worked there for 2½ years. “And my supervisor nodded her head at me, stood up, and walked out of the room and said nothing,” says Miriam (her middle name). “Not a word to me.”
Miriam was shocked—she had no idea this was coming. A few months ago, she’d criticized one of her boss’s ideas during a private conversation. “She told me the next day that she was really offended by it, and I apologized, and I thought things were fine,” she says. A few weeks later, after Miriam had an unrelated, quickly resolved disagreement with a higher-up, the boss sent Miriam to a class to help her adjust her behavior. “I’d had this job for two years up until this point without ever having an issue with communication be raised, but anyway, I went to the class and I came back and I told her what I found helpful and what I didn’t find helpful, and that was pretty much the last I heard about it.”
In the three months between the behavior class and the day she got fired, Miriam’s boss hadn’t given her any feedback about her behavior, even though they met one-on-one every week. And Miriam had always gotten positive feedback from her colleagues about the quality of her work—even while she was being fired. According to Miriam, the HR director “kept emphasizing in the termination meeting how excellent my work product was, what a fabulous job—they used the word ‘fabulous’—I’d done in the job for the 2½ years that I had been there.”
If you were trying to fire someone in the most painful way possible, you might copy Miriam’s boss’s actions to the letter. Miriam’s termination came as a complete surprise and left her confused as to why she was being let go—and her boss’s refusal to say a word to her during or after the termination meeting didn’t help.
Getting fired is never pleasant, but some managers make it much worse than it needs to be. The management literature is awash with advice on how to fire people, and most of it boils down to this: The nicest way to fire someone is to rethink everything you know about being nice.
Management experts agree: Firing should never come as a surprise. Instead, it should always follow a series of discussions about the employee’s shortcomings, during which the employee has been given a chance to improve. (That doesn’t apply if an employee has done something truly egregious like stolen money or sexually harassed a colleague, of course.) Ideally, writes Ask a Manager columnist Alison Green, “The employee has been clearly told about the problems and what needs to change, warned that the progress isn’t what it needs to be, and explicitly told that his or her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don’t occur.” Or, as Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner of a consulting firm, writes for Harvard Business Review:
make sure that letting your employee go is the last step in a careful, thoughtful, fair, and transparent process that started long before the actual firing. In other words, if the dismissal is for poor performance, then it should occur after a series of performance discussions, plans, and documented actions.
This is easier said than done. Criticizing employees’ performance isn’t the most enjoyable part of a manager’s job. But the alternative is to make them feel blindsided, shocked, and angry—on top of the inherent pain of getting fired. Even though it feels mean to tell someone her work is not up to par, it’s kinder than letting her believe that everything’s fine when it isn’t. A friend named Dan describes being let go by a boss whose primary characteristic was “relentless chumminess.” In retrospect, Dan realizes he hadn’t been doing a good job—but when the ax fell, “I was surprised, because he had not really told me he wasn’t satisfied with my work, because he was too fixated on pretending to be my pal.”
Putting employees on notice also prevents them from feeling completely invalidated when they do finally get fired, because you’ll have proven that you do truly want them to get better. (If you give an employee an opportunity to improve, you should be open to the possibility that they’ll improve.) Lisa recently got fired from a job where she’d been for 10 years after she flipped off an executive behind his back after he’d snapped at her. Lisa didn’t think much of it at the time—“we all threw F-bombs occasionally around the office,” she says—but someone saw her and told her boss about it. A week later, when she asked her supervisor why she was being invited to a meeting in the CEO’s office, her supervisor “was really quiet for a really time, and she said, ‘It will work out how it needs to work out.’ ”
During the meeting, Lisa feels that she wasn’t given a chance to tell her side of the story. “I tried to advocate for myself and just literally was not allowed,” she says. “I was given no direction, no opportunity to redirect the conversation, and absolutely no time or voice to be heard. … They had literally made up all their minds, and nobody in that room was on my side.” Of course, no sensible manager would fire an employee of 10 years for a single, harmless lapse in judgment. Perhaps there was some other reason for the firing—a problem with her work or her relationships with her superiors—but Lisa’s termination came so suddenly, with so little discussion, that she’s left scratching her head and feeling betrayed. “I’ve been there for 10 years,” she says. “Just come talk to me.”
Even if you don’t care about the feelings of the people you fire, there are still good reasons to give them a chance to improve first. If you fire people without warning, your remaining employees will live in fear that they could be next. If you make it clear that you always talk to employees about their limitations before you fire them, you’ll build trust and confidence, which helps people do their best work. There are legal reasons to be careful, too. Most private employment contracts are at-will, which means that you can fire someone for almost any reason, but there are exceptions: You can’t fire employees for their race, gender, or other attributes covered by antidiscrimination laws, or for complaining about illegal activity. If you talk to your employee about their performance or behavioral issues before you fire them—and keep a record of each meeting—they’ll be less likely to sue you for discrimination or retaliation, and you’ll be in a stronger position if they do.
When a manager has given an employee ample chances to improve to no avail, and she decides it’s finally time to part ways, she might try to soften the blow. Don’t. There are many things a boss can say with good intentions that will make the fired employee feel worse. Dan’s boss, for example, “sighed and was like, ‘This is going to be really hard,’ as a way of trying to inoculate himself against me being angry.” Dan learned an important lesson from this misstep: “On the rare occasions I have ever had to let someone go I am sure I have done things badly but I have tried really hard not to pretend it’s as difficult for me as it is for them.”
Emphasizing the good things the employee has done, as Miriam’s HR director did, will also probably backfire, leaving terminated workers confused about why they’re being fired or imagining they still have a chance at the company. “While it’s tempting to say good things to temper the bad (‘You’re great, you’re fired, we’ve loved having you here’), it only confuses the issue,” writes Harvard Business Review’s Anese Cavanaugh. And coming up with a cover story to spare employees’ feelings—or coming up with an HR-friendly excuse—not only deprives them of valuable honest feedback about their work, it also gives them fodder to stew over for weeks or months to come. Miriam, who doesn’t believe that her behavior warranted firing, now thinks that either her boss wanted to bring in her own team or that she simply didn’t like Miriam—but there’s no way for her to know for sure, or to use that information to help her improve her performance going forward. (Since Miriam was an at-will employee, her boss didn’t need to cite a reason for firing her—but it would have been better to cite some version of the truth than to make up a reason for firing her.)
That uncertainty makes Miriam wish her supervisor had come to her sooner with her concerns. “If my behavior is undesirable for any reason to my boss, I want to know about that and I want to make changes,” she says. “That’s a really hard conversation to have, but that’s what you have to do as a manager. Sometimes you have to have hard conversations, like, ‘I’m sorry this isn’t working out, and maybe we can talk about a good next step for you.’ There are ways to make that conversation less awful. But there are no ways to make that conversation they had with me less awful, where you just terminate someone and turn off their email and don’t let them close anything out or say goodbye to anybody or have any dignity.”
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