Firing people sucks. Fortunately it’s a rare occurrence here at Lucid Software, but when I have to do it, my palms sweat and I get a pit in my stomach. I know that the only person who feels worse than I do is the one I’m letting go.
The truth is, it’s probably my fault they’re being fired. They were a bad fit for the role, but the hiring team (led by me) put them there. Usually it’s because the company was in a hurry to fill a position and accepted “good enough” when I know that our expectation is excellence. Other times we just didn’t have a clear vision of who we needed, and it resulted in a bad decision.
Whatever the reason, I know that I’m not the only CEO who feels the burden of blame when an employee is let go. Jan Bednar, CEO of ShipMonk, shared that, “As a founder, I feel I am the one to blame when a hire doesn’t work out, since I often influence the decision to hire in the first place.”
Trent Silver, CEO at Nerdster.com, agrees: “If a new hire isn’t working out, the hiring manager is always to blame.” Silver takes it one step further, saying, “Even if the new employee decides they no longer want a position, the hiring manager should have identified these signs and prevented this hire from occurring in the first place. It was a misidentification of whether a person would be a right fit for the company culture.”
Regardless of blame, I sleep a whole lot easier at night when I know that we’ve done everything possible to respect the people I’m terminating and help them land on their feet. To illustrate some of what I’ve learned, let me tell you about a talented guy we’ll call Jeremy.
I had a desperate need to fill a certain position at Lucid Software. The team and I should have started searching for someone to fill this role sooner, but we’d procrastinated, and there was a tremendous amount of pressure to hire someone.
That’s when we met Jeremy.
On paper, Jeremy looked like he could fill this role. He wasn’t an exact fit, but he had a good resume, and I thought that he was close enough to grow into it. After some deliberation from the team, I gave the green light to hire Jeremy. He started two weeks later.
It was apparent early on that the position wasn’t a good fit for his skill set. I tried coaching Jeremy and giving regular feedback. I tried suggesting different approaches he could take to get the job done. I tried giving Jeremy more freedom, and I tried being more hands-on. Ultimately, nothing seemed to be working. Jeremy had a lot of skills, just not the right ones for this position.
So I met with the executive team to discuss what we should do. We talked about Jeremy’s skills and the kinds of roles he might be more successful in but ultimately decided that we didn’t have a good spot for him. I would have to let him go.
I called Jeremy into a conference room and told him that it wasn’t working out. His surprise was palpable. He knew that his work hadn’t lived up to our expectations, but he didn’t see the termination coming. That was the hardest part for both of us. In retrospect, I probably should have been more explicit about the consequences if he didn’t improve his performance.
I acknowledged his skills but made it clear that they weren’t a good fit for the work we needed to do right now. I assured him that he’d be happier in a role where his skills could thrive, and I offered to either keep him on for a couple of months while he looked for something else or pay him a generous severance so that he could dedicate all of his energy to his job search.
He chose to take the severance.
It was a hard experience, but here’s what I learned from it:
Slow down. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don’t rush to fill a position if it means setting someone up for failure. If you have your doubts about a candidate, listen to those doubts. Hiring the wrong person to relieve pressure in the short term will just kick the can down the road. Be extremely selective in your new hires, and stay involved in the recruiting process even as you grow.
Communicate. Set expectations up front, and give clear and consistent feedback. If you have to let the person go, you don’t want it to come as a surprise. Aaron Schmookler, co-founder of the teambuilding consultancy The Yes Works, says that, “The greatest damage to dignity is done when the firing comes as a surprise. Frankly, it’s inhumane to fire someone without warning.”
Act early. It’s often apparent very quickly when something isn’t right. As soon as it is apparent, make changes. Don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole. Move the new hire to a more suitable role or terminate them, but don’t drag the process out.
Help them land well. It will reflect well on your company and help you sleep better at night knowing that you did the right thing. Rachel Bitte, the Chief People Officer at Jobvite, suggests, “The best way to let someone go when it isn’t working out is to provide a clear transition period for them. It could last a few weeks or three months, but it’s beneficial to both the employee and the employer to create a transition phase for each to have time to figure out their next steps.”
“But Karl,” I hear you protest, “shouldn’t I hover over their desk as they gather all their things into an old box and then have security escort them off the premises?”
If that draconian process feels necessary to you, consider why you are letting this person go. In my experience, it’s almost never because they are immoral people who want to sabotage the organization. Treating them like criminals on their way out will not make either of us feel good, will hurt our reputation with any employees who witness it, and will damage the company’s brand. Besides, it’s wrong. Bitte agrees, “A dignified and thought-out exit is less likely to spook other employees or affect company morale. It’s a win-win-win for the leaving employee, their coworkers, and the employer.”
Treating people well will pay dividends, both in morale and in the bottom line. So if you must fire someone, let them keep their dignity. Remember, at the end of the day, you have to be able to live with the choices you make at work.
I had the chance to ask Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be A Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, a couple of questions about firing. Kim and I worked together at Google, and she’s acted as an advisor to some great companies. I really respect her opinion, and I wanted to publish her responses in their entirety. Here’s her advice:
How can managers use feedback to avoid having to fire employees?
When you give Radically Candid feedback (praise and criticism), you give people the opportunity to build on success, and to fix mistakes. This will often–but not always–help them grow and improve so that you don’t have to fire them. Everyone can be great at some job, but not everyone can be good at every job. Sometimes, giving and soliciting Radical Candor and being a thought partner will help people thrive in their current job; other times, the best way to help them find the job where they can succeed is to remove them from a job where they are failing.
When firing is unavoidable, how do you fire someone in the most compassionate way possible?
When you are firing somebody for poor performance, you should have already been giving them feedback about why their work wasn’t good enough over the course of the previous weeks and months.
This [the termination meeting] is the time for you to 1) explain they are being fired, 2) recap why as quickly as possible, 3) express compassion for the emotions the person shows, and 4) get them focused on the future: how can they best message this, what other kinds of jobs might be a better fit (give this some serious thought the day before, and if you’d be comfortable making introductions, offer that; if you find that you are so fed up or angry with the person that you just think they are hopeless, work on your attitude; everyone can be good at something).
If being fired is going to come like a bolt from the blue to the person, you have not done your job as a manager. If you can, give the person some time to address the issue. If you can’t do that for some reason, acknowledge that you should’ve been giving more feedback if you think you can do that without incurring huge legal risk. If you are concerned about the legal risk, look yourself in the mirror and commit to never making the mistake of failing to give feedback along the way again. At the very least, you can admit it to yourself. And work extra hard to think about jobs where the person would thrive.
If you are laying somebody off, be really clear that the person did not do anything wrong, and that either management made mistakes (overhiring) or that the market changed, etc. Do everything you can to help people land on their feet.