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29 Mar. 2012 | Comments (0)

Perhaps the most difficult part of any manager's job is telling a subordinate that he can no longer stay with the company — that he's been "fired," "let go," "dismissed," or otherwise taken off the payroll. It's a gut-wrenching conversation, knowing how this simple act affects a person's career, self-esteem, and livelihood. Firing an employee also affects everyone else on your team. Not only does it change work assignments, but it also makes people wonder about your judgment as a manager and their own job security.

Given these emotional undercurrents, many managers let anxiety drive the firing process instead of intellect, making a difficult moment even worse. For example, I know of a senior manager who walked unannounced into his employee's office, junior HR person in-tow, and declared: "You've been fired. Our HR associate will answer your questions and then escort you out of the building." The manager then exited, leaving the shocked (former) employee and the ill-prepared HR person staring awkwardly at each other. What made this situation even worse is that the senior manager had given no previous indication of the employee's performance difficulties and had given him nothing but positive feedback in the previous six months. Now, suddenly, the reason for the firing was "lack of teamwork." And because it was "for cause," no severance was offered and pay was terminated immediately.

From the manager's perspective, this approach avoided the anxiety associated with firing. He didn't have to engage in any difficult performance discussions or justify his actions. He also avoided any kind of emotional scene and (temporary) budget impacts. Of course, he also probably generated a major lawsuit that left the company liable for far more than the cost of a severance. And once the story got out, he likely lost the respect of his team.

Clearly this may be an extreme example,but there are too many stories like this one. Because firing is so emotionally charged, it's easy to act counterproductively. To avoid that, here are some guidelines for those times when firing an employee becomes a necessity:

First, 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. If it's due to reorganization or job elimination, it also should follow conversations, announcements, and a reasonable "fair warning." The key is that, if possible, firing should not come as a surprise. In most companies, the HR function has guidelines for how this process should unfold.

Second, come to the "firing meeting" prepared to address the practical logistical questions that the person will have about leaving her job: When is the official end date? Are there severance arrangements? Are there opportunities elsewhere in the company? Is career counseling available? What happens with benefits? You may need help from HR to make sure that these answers are available.

Third, at the meeting be ready to listen but not react. Losing a job can be traumatic, and your employee may display a range of emotions, which he might direct towards you. Try not to get caught up in responding. Listen with respect and then direct the person towards the practical realities of moving on. Offer to talk again later when the emotions are not so raw, or ask a trained HR counselor to join you.

Finally, after the firing, talk to your team about the process, the reasoning, and the implications for them (within the limits of confidentiality). In some cases, they will fully understand the decision. In others, they may have a very incomplete picture. In either case, you need to be sensitive to their emotions, and then help redirect their focus back on work.

Firing a subordinate is one of the most difficult and painful tasks you'll ever have to do as a manager; and for most of us it never gets easier. Unfortunately, avoiding the anxiety associated with firing only makes things worse. So if you have to do it — do it right.

What's been your experience with firing — or being fired?

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 3/20/2012.

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  • About the Author: Ron Ashkenas

    Ron Ashkenas

    Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.

    Full Bio | More from Ron Ashkenas


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