Business, for all it’s technology, products and innovation, is at its core a study in human behaviour. It is about frameworks that bring like minded individuals together to provide a needed service or build a coveted product. The motivation that drives us as individuals within these frameworks ranges from altruism to the pursuit of covering our basic human needs. The fabric of the framework is strengthened when performance of the individuals, no matter the motivation, moves the whole forward in a predefined direction (identified as success) and is weakened when one of more of those individuals cannot or will meet the agreed performance expectations.
As a leader there are times that we need to remove people from our business to ensure that the fabric of the whole remains strong. That removal may come in the way of economy driven layoffs or it may come as a result of poor performance. Both types of departures are necessary but neither are easy. No matter the reason for severing a working relationship the good leader never forgets that there is a human element at play – the characteristics that define us as good leaders are exactly the same as those that allows us to feel empathy even as we deliver the messages that most people don’t want to hear.
When faced with having to layoff or fire an employee my personal test is “can I look myself in the mirror knowing that I have done the right thing?” It’s about leadership integrity.
Over the course of my career I have delivered both types of messages. The layoffs are personally more taxing in that it is difficult to give the impacted employees a sense of control of their own destiny. The layoff message is rarely personal (at time because we are legally obligated to keep it that way) and as such it is difficult for the impacted employee to own the message. It is difficult for them to wrest control out of a situation that is not about their personal performance, that they perhaps have not seen coming and that leaves them vulnerable during an economic time that new jobs are scarce. As a leader in these situations there are three key things that need to be done
1. the message needs to be delivered in a way that allows the employee to understand that today is their last day. It needs to be direct.
2. the employee needs to feel that they are respected and that their contributions have been valued. A leaders role is to allow the employee to walk away with their dignity intact. This is the key element in allowing them to start the process of moving forward.
3. all remaining employees, including you as a leader, need to be given the opportunity to “grieve” through the process. You are only human.
If you have cared for all three steps, and knowing that this was something that had to be done to sustain the business, then it makes the process while a difficult one, an acceptable one.
I would argue that a performance related departure or a “firing” is not that different. At the end of the day the message needs to be understood and it needs to be delivered with dignity. The termination discussion is not the place to dwell on the ongoing performance issues. That should have occurred well in advance. And that, in an exceptionally long winded way, gets me to the main point of this post.
The only way that firing an employee for ongoing performance issues (effectively taking those gross negligence, illegal etc activities out of this argument) is “ok” is if the all of the following have occurred:
1. performance expectations have been clearly articulated.
2. the employee is aware that they were not meeting performance expectations
3. you as a leader, have provided the necessary coaching, tools and opportunities for the employee to reach a successful level of performance
4. you as a leader have made yourself available – clear direction is of no value if you are not accessible during the implementation
5. the employee clearly understands the potential consequences of not meeting the expectations
If you have done your due diligence and given the employee the opportunity to move towards success, and they choose not to succeed or ultimately are not capable of succeeding then the termination path is the right one to take. The discussion will not be a surprise and quite frankly if the process was done effectively many have already started to look for other opportunities.
If you have not done your due diligence and covered all of the above five elements then the employee should not be fired. You are putting your organization at risk if you have not stepped up to the plate. You have to show that it’s the right thing to do and that you have done your job as their manager. I have no tolerance for heavy handed managers who feel that they are omnipotent, able to hire and fire at whim. That is not good business and is definitely not good leadership. Managing performance that may end in a termination is time consuming. It requires a higher level of engagement than is normally given to any individual employee (whether this is right or wrong is perhaps fodder for another post) and it requires a higher level of sensitivity than we may otherwise choose to show.
At the end of the day if a terminated employee can walk out of the door acknowledging that they knew that it was coming, that they were treated respectfully and with the right level of support throughout the process and that they learned something along the way then you, as a leader, can look yourself in the mirror and say “I fired someone. And that was ok”