Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Do I Fire Someone?

“Everybody tells me that it’s impossible to fire someone at this company, no matter what they do.  How do I fire someone who really, really needs to be fired?”
- MK, Estes Park, Colorado

By the time you decide you need to fire someone, it’s probably too late to do it right. A proper termination takes time and effort. You need to start the process long before the employee situation reaches the point of no return.

First, it’s almost never the case that you get to fire people. They don’t work for you; they work for the company. It’s up to the company to decide to let them go. You may be the agent of the termination or the bearer of the bad news, but to make a firing happen, you normally need the cooperation, support, and approval of your own management chain, which normally includes human resources and may include the legal department as well. If they haven’t been brought on board early, they may be reluctant to back you up when trouble starts. If you even think there’s a real possibility that someone may need to go, talk to your boss and to human resources as soon as possible.

There are two basic reasons to fire someone: performance and discipline. Performance issues are about the amount, quality, and appropriateness of the work the employee does. Discipline issues involve failure to obey rules and policies or behavior that undermines authority and cohesion of the workforce. In both cases, good practice (and in some cases laws and contracts) argues that employees have the right to know that there’s a problem, what the problem is, and reasonable support from the organization to fix it short of termination.

So, what exactly is the problem? What is the difference between the behavior you expect or require, and the behavior you’re getting? Don’t expect to get away with generalities like a “bad attitude.” Describe the issue in behavioral terms: what you can actually see, hear, or otherwise measure.

If the firing offense is blatant and obvious, like stealing or violent behavior, it’s usually pretty straightforward. But if the offenses are more subtle — and especially if it involves personality issues — you need to prepare the ground carefully.

What are you doing and what can you do to improve the situation without firing? To answer that, you need to determine the root cause. There are three basic causes: the employee doesn’t know what the proper standard is, the employee can’t meet the standard, or the employee won’t meet the standard.

If you have a “don’t know” problem, the answer is simple and it’s your fault: you need to provide clear and specific guidance. If that’s enough to fix the problem, clearly you don’t need to fire someone.

“Can’t do” problems may respond to training or coaching, to additional tools or resources, or to a modification in the job environment. Even under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), you can fire someone who can’t perform a job, as long as you’ve made “reasonable accommodations.” Of course, what you think is reasonable and what a court thinks is reasonable may vary, so interpret “reasonable” broadly.

“Won’t do” problems are when an employee knows what is proper, has the ability to do what is proper, and still chooses to do something different. It’s worth the effort to find out why someone won’t perform, but the bottom line is that it’s still a choice.

Don’t assume you know what the problem is until you do your homework. Talk to the person involved. And listen to what he or she says in response. There may be a way to solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction short of termination.

Find out if there are other issues involved. Is the employee politically connected, or does the employee have skills or access that may be more important than the performance problems? Are there union contracts, regulations, or legal protections that apply? Considerations such as these don’t make an employee invulnerable to firing, but they often require careful management on your part.

Make sure you learn your company’s process for firing, and follow the rules to the letter. Get coaching from human resources. Have everything ready before you call the person in. Get to the point, and get it over with.

If the person you terminate is surprised, you did something wrong. By providing feedback, support, and coaching throughout, it should always be clear to the employee what the current gap is between actions and expectations. If there’s no surprise, the emotions are often not as strong as you might expect.

Above all, don’t drag it out, and don’t let your own fear stand in the way of doing what needs to be done. A lot of firings are botched because of the cowardice of the manager. If you’re not willing to follow through, don’t bluff.

Finally, be prepared to negotiate the terms of separation. What kind of reference will you provide? How much severance pay? Are there timing issues? Because of the ever-present risk of lawsuits, it’s often cheaper to sweeten the pot for the departing employee in exchange for a release of liability.

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