What We Can Learn From the Worst Thing a Manager Must Do

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Regular readers of my semi-regular Friday posts know that I sometimes mention The New York Times’ You’re the Boss blog because I often find it to be the source of great insight into talent management and HR.

What I like most is how You’re the Boss reduces issues that just about everyone deals with in organizations of all sizes to bite-sized specifics that are applicable to just about anyone managing people just about anywhere.

Here’s a case in point, and just the headline of the blog post sucks you into it — What I Learned From Firing My Employee of 20 Years.

Too many terminations are done badly

I have very strong feelings about how managers should handle a termination, and those feelings come from years of having to not only sit people down and let them go, but from watching all too many peers and cohorts do it as well — and often do it very, very badly.

Here’s my philosophy on employee terminations, and I feel even more strongly about it today than when I first wrote it a number of years ago:

There’s only one right way to fire a person — in person, face-to-face, supervisor to worker. There’s a reason for this, and it’s simple: It should be handled that way because management should be forced to personally confront the consequences of its actions.

I don’t know any good manager who likes firing people, but unfortunately, it’s part of the job. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you owe it to the person you are firing to sit them down and tell them the reasons why.

Can you do it by phone? Well, yes, but that should only be used in an extremely unusual or exceptional circumstance. I’ve had to travel across the country on occasion to discharge a remotely based worker in person, and although I hated having to do it, I always felt it was a trip worth making. Why? Well, when you have to fire someone in person, you find that you are a lot less willing to consider doing it in the abstract. And that’s why doing it by e-mail or phone is a cop-out. It dehumanizes a process that is pretty inhuman to begin with.

Taking a person’s job away, for whatever reason, is one of the worst things you can do to another human. Doing it in person doesn’t make it better, but it does make it more personal and is one small thing that can help the departing person walk away with some small measure of dignity.”

What struck me about the recent Who’s the Boss blog post concerning the termination of a longtime employee, is that author and small business owner Paul Downs  originally wrote a five part series on performance reviews and the termination of this employee (My Disturbing Experience With Employee Reviews) , followed up by this recent article that gets into the advice and questions readers had for how he handed the whole process.

Anguish and difficulty

It’s well worth a read, because it does a pretty good job of capturing the anguish and turmoil that both the manager and the terminated employee go through when they get into this process.

Here’s the key part of it, from  What I Learned From Firing My Employee of 20 Years:

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Here is what I was trying to say: It has been difficult, and a lot of work, to try to invent management structures that are appropriate for my company and that work with my employees as they are. We are not a large company with a long history of good management. We don’t draw employees from organizations where they have learned best practices.

Those of you who have started a company from scratch share my experience: On the day you open your doors, you start with nothing. You make it up as you go. If you are lucky enough to start with previous experience as an employee or manager, you have a head start. If you have outside investors, or a board, you have a leg up. Many companies, including my own, are started with none of those resources.

I have had to concentrate my energies on delivering the product we promised to the customers who pay me. I haven’t had the time, money or knowledge to accomplish the smooth introduction of all of the smart management practices I would like to employ. I am not sure that all of those who criticized my actions fully understand how consuming it can be to start and run a small business, to try to keep the doors open and also to handle difficult situations like this one. Where do you learn what to do and what not to do? Where do you find the time and money to acquire that knowledge without neglecting other issues that directly affect the survival of your own endeavor? For some owners, it’s a process of trial and error, and it’s not always pretty.”

“There but for the grace of God …”

Yes, this is from a small business owner about the particular challenges he had with people while growing his business, but if this all sounds very familiar, it’s because you can hear much of the same from people at all different types of organizations. Big does not always mean better, nor does it mean that a larger organization’s talent management infrastructure is any more polished or professional.

This story of this small business owner having to terminate a long-time employee is one that should resonate with everyone, because if it is not something you have already experienced, it is likely something that you eventually will.

As the protestant reformer John Bradford said, “There, but for the Grace of God, go I,” and that is appropriate here. Any manager worth their salt knows that terminating employees is something that all managers must eventually do. My hope is that of us have the empathy, and self-reflection, that Paul Downs shows here.

Team building and stand-up meetings

Of course, there’s a lot more than how to properly terminate an employee in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • When team building goes bad — I’ve never been big on team building exercises that force people to climb rocks or participate in sack races under the guide of building a stronger bond with the people you work with, those this NPR story on a team paint balling exercise gone bad struck a chord with me. “Office team-building exercises often create lasting memories,” the article says, “just not necessarily ones you want to remember.”
  • Should you be talking religion with job candidates? The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision has a lot of people worked up, and as The Wall Street Journal points out, “The court’s decision, which came about after a challenge by the Hobby Lobby chain of retail stores to a section of the Affordable Care Act, is at “the intersection of two categories that can get companies in trouble — religious views and family planning,” said Pamela Skillings, a workplace expert in New York  … It is illegal for companies to ask prospective employees about their religious views, but individuals are free to question hiring managers and human-resources representatives about anything at all, including owners’ religious beliefs and their impact on anything from benefits to corporate culture, say employment lawyers.That can open the door to legal hazards, particularly if the manager uses that opening to pry — or even appear to pry — into a candidate’s personal life.”
  • The stand-up meeting makes a comeback. The Washington Post recently wrote about what they feel is an anecdote to hiring meetings — the stand-up meeting. They point to, ” new study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis (that) found that when people stand during meetings, they appeared more excited by their work, acted less territorial about their ideas, and interacted better as a team.”
  • Higher minimum wage in Silicon Valley. Does a higher minimum wage mean much in pricey and expensive Silicon Valley? Yes, it does, according to USA Today. They note that, “Interviews with San Jose workers, businesses and industry officials show it has improved the lives of affected employees while imposing minimal costs on employers.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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