Tuesday, 13 December 2011

How to fire people

One of the most useful training courses I've been on was about how to fire people. WHAT you are probably thinking, what kind of sadistic person is he, but it's not that I particularly enjoy firing people, but because it is one of those situations, where so much can go wrong, and it can have pretty grave consequences.

In these training sessions, we went through one employment tribunal ruling after another and I can say that in almost all cases of unfair dismissal, the company lost because they didn’t follow the correct PROCESS.

We learned how important it is to DOCUMENT the reason for the dismissal, when and how to give the appropriate WARNINGS, how to be SHORT AND PRECISE when you deliver message, always BRING A HR REPRESENTATIVE to deal with any complaints in accordance with law and company policy and DON'T EXPECT THEM TO LEAVE ON GOOD TERMS WITH YOU (remember this last one).

We also learned to prepare for the reaction of people which can one or a combination of:

· Cry and plead.

· Get very angry and perhaps threaten you.

· Try to negotiate.

· Accept and leave amicably.

It will do you good to visualise each of these outcomes and how you plan to deal with them. If you do expect a person will react particularly strongly make suitable provisions to ensure it doesn't get out of hand. You can avoid many issues by planning it properly.

The answer for each reaction is to stick to your story, don't get deflected, don't get upset, don't get angry, say what you meant to say, explain that the decision is final and HR will handle any questions/complains they might have.

So I was pretty well prepared when the company hit rough patch and my boss (the COO) and the CEO devised a hit list (yes that’s what they called it) and I was told that I there was some work in it for me.

On the day of my first firing, I stopped by my Boss’ office to let him know what was going to happen. He was fairly new in the job and our 3rd COO in as many years, which would tell you a bit about the kind of company I was working for. But this new boss was a pretty high calibre guy, so the expectation was he would be around a while longer. His personality was also a good fit for the business and I certainly don’t think he was hired for his empathy. So anyway our brief conversation was something like this.

Boss: "How are you, are you feeling good about it? Because if not, I can do it, I don’t give a fuck; they called me the chopper in my old job"

Me: "No I’m not feeling good; if it felt good then I would be an asshole. But I’m the line manager, so it would be most proper that I do it"

Two things to add to the above dialogue. Firstly, that the chopper has himself been chopped since. Second, if you are planning a long career and a healthy stress-free life, it will do you good to not call your boss an asshole.

The girl I fired that day broke down and cried, it was pretty bad. In our company we couldn't afford potential retribution and we therefore asked them to collect personal belongings, any personal files they had on their computer (supervised) , gave them a cheque with all the compensation they were entitled to, and then they were escorted to the reception. It is very tough; she was very upset and definitely blamed me. Not something that makes you feel very good about yourself.

The second guy was very angry, angry at me, angry at the company, angry at colleagues which he blamed for his situation. At some point it looked like it could get a little crazy, but when he realised that there wasn't anything to do he actually left with a handshake. The hardest part was refusing to give him a personal written recommendation.

In both the above cases we followed the process, so they had been given warnings both written and in person, I believed it was justified (although certainly accelerated by the company's need to cut staff numbers), and we had done it in accordance with the law. I felt like shit but I also had a duty to protect the company.

I gathered my team afterwards and explained what had happened. You explain that a colleague has been fired, why, and you tell them about the sequence of events. You don’t sugar coat it and don’t look for sympathy. You tell them that you think that the person who left would probably appreciate a call from his/her fiends. In my case I had a good team that knew I would have done what I could to avoid the situation and generally backed me up (as much as you can expect anyway).

But it certainly didn't always go in accordance with plan. There was for example a manager who got "made redundant" and left on amicable terms, several of the owners therefore wrote glowing recommendations, which he then used to file a suit. The problem is that he knew that somebody else had been given his old position, and you should remember that you make the job redundant, not the person. By the company's own accord he was good at his job, his job was obviously not redundant, and the company simply replaced him with somebody it found marginally more important to keep. You can’t do that.

Through the carnage that was the sup-prime implosion, many more went through the revolving door, and it definitely wasn't always right and proper, and besides the obvious personal implications for both people leaving and staying, it also left the company wide open to litigation, and I have no idea how often it came to that.

Bizarrely the most important lesson I have personally learned is to HIRE the right people in the first place. Some consider me unnecessarily tough in a job interview, but I think I owe them to be absolutely sure they will be able to do the job (I won’t take a punt). Get the right person and, unless they prove antisocial or lazy, if they are underperforming it's your failure as a manager.


  1. Super article and if more managers followed your guidelines I would have been out of work as an employment lawyer!
    The sheer lack of care about process was astonishing....and this with firms with hefty HR departments.
    What did disturb me though was the prevailing stink of 'office politics' in the context of the 'reason' for sacking someone...I often felt that managers were caving in to a hate campaign in their departments rather than managing the situation in the best interests of getting the job done.
    Clearly not in your case!

  2. What a great comment, thank you. So you are are lawyer, that explains why you know so much about the legal systems of different countries and the excellent language in your blog. 

    I've spent 5 years in various business schools and not a single word was said on this critical issue, so no wonder why some managers screw-up the process. And yes I completely recognise what you say about  getting involved with hate  (or love) campaigns. I think it will do many people good to realise that the moment you become a manager "you are one of them", and if it doesn't suit you  then respectfully decline the promotion.