Firing Someone for the First Time

A version of this post appeared on IvyExec.com.

If you are a newly minted manager, you have just made one of the most significant leadership transitions: Going from being an individual contributor to being a manager.  Your job function changes significantly with this transition.  Your key focus is no longer your personal work output, but that of your team.  For a lot of new managers, the hardest part is when it comes to how you deal with the human resources management side of things: Hiring, nurturing, and firing employees.

The last one is the most challenging. How to fire someone with respect and dignity is something everyone has to learn from scratch.

Firing someone is extremely difficult to do both on the side of the employer, and on the side of the employee (and sometimes contractor and intern).  If you have  never done this before, you would have no frame of reference to help them navigate this emotionally intense process.  What framework should you use to think about this?  How can you get through this grueling process for the first time and do it right?

If you are wondering if you should fire someone – you probably should

The first thing you should know is that if the thought occurs to you that you may have to fire someone, you are probably a few months late already.  People find this process very difficult, and thus they tend to procrastinate and rationalize.  If you find yourself wondering if the time has come, the time probably did come 6 months ago.

Don’t repackage a firing as a lay-off

The second thing you should ask yourself is whether this a performance based firing, a personality fit based firing, or a lay-off?  Those are very different things. If someone needs to be fired because they are not meeting your expectations or because they are being disrespectful to their teammates and causing a toxic team dynamic, that is not the same as the fact that their role has been eliminated because you restructured your organization, or you are running short on money. Here is where honesty equals integrity.  If you need to fire them, fire them.  But please don’t tell them they are laid off in order to avoid the hard conversations.

Give good feedback along the way

If you are really firing someone, the other question you should ask yourself is this: Did you give the person any feedback along the way about how they are not meeting your expectations?  If they are not performing well now, they were probably not performing well for the past three months, or perhaps even longer than that. Did you give them constructive feedback and come up with a performance improvement plan? If not, then you are not being fair to them.  This is the one situation where it might be reasonable to delay the firing, so you can talk about the performance issues with the employees and see if you can fix things.  You probably can’t… but the other person deserves to get good feedback along the way. They do not deserve to be blindsided with a firing at the end of months of rosy “you are doing fine… you are great…” comments.

Preparing yourself for the difficult conversation

Suppose after all this, you really have to fire them.  There are two things you can read to prepare yourself for your first firing (you will probably feel worse than if you are the one being fired – especially if it is your first time).  First Round Capital has a blog post on this.  Also there is a book called Difficult Conversations that is a very dense read, but gives you strategies to approach this conversation in a way that respects the dignity of your employee, and doesn’t make the experience any more difficult than it has to be for them.

One important thing to note, which is covered by the above readings, is that you should not be wishy washy about the message you are sending.  You need to deliver the message compassionately, but unambiguously – this is not a time to negotiate an alternative outcome.

It’s not about you – you are here for your employee

No matter how uncomfortable you may feel during the firing, just remember that this conversation is for the employee, not you.  You will need to find a way to process your own feelings ahead of time and put yourself together for the conversation.  Put their needs front and center and make sure you take care of them in the conversation and subsequent exit interview.  It’s the least you can do to help them feel respected and heard during this difficult process.

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