It is never easy to terminate an employee. No matter how egregious their actions might be, firing someone is by far one of the hardest jobs of management. You hired them with the best intentions. You saw something in them that made you want to take the chance and offer them the job. You wanted them to succeed. They have not. You must now admit defeat – not only to yourself and that employee, but to the rest of your employees as well.
It isn’t too hard to announce that Susie, who never was popular with the employees and was the center of many complaints, has left the company. It is much harder when the employee in question, let’s call him Joe, was extremely popular with his coworkers. What can you say to justify your decision? Shouldn’t you be able to let them know the facts behind your decision to terminate Joe? Why do you have to come out as the bad guy when it was Joe who was hurting the company?
Because you are the boss.
At red, we often must counsel our clients to take a deep breath (and often more than just one) when we discuss a potential termination with them. The “Joe” employee is always the hardest. Often, poorly performing employees don’t show their colors in front of their peers. It might be that Joe is able to hide his substandard performance from everyone in the department because his job is hard to monitor by anyone at his level. It could be Joe is involved in something that is in violation of federal or state laws. Often, the “Joe” is someone who is very good at buttering up to his peers, shifting most of his work to them; he might think he is being a great delegator but in reality he is a terrible employee.
When the decision is made to say good-bye to Joe, the employer is also faced with how to tell the rest of the employees that Joe is no longer part of the company. If Joe has been an extremely poor employee – whether he broke law, didn’t live up to expectations, or was a poor influence on others – it is a real challenge on what you can say and what you need to keep confidential.
It is always the best advice to ‘take the high road’ and not say a word. You are the boss, your employees trust you to make decisions based on what is best for the company…at least they should.
And that is one of the hardest parts of being the boss. Popular Joe – fired. Boss – not so popular any more. No matter if the reasons were very serious or if Joe was a negative force in the workplace, employees will always question why a popular guy like Joe is let go. In the best possible worlds, employees know that the manager makes these type of decisions based on hard facts and long nights of deep thought. Sadly, such a perfect world doesn’t exist.
The watercooler will be buzzing – until you, the boss, walk in. Morale might take a real dip for a while. After all, if you let Joe go ‘who knows who will be next?’ Sometimes, loyalty to the terminated employee trumps loyalty to the employer and others might choose to follow Joe out the door. It is a very human response to want to call an employee meeting, lay out your case and let them know exactly what Joe did (or didn’t do) that forced your hand. DON’T DO IT!
Instead, remember that one of management’s first priorities is to protect the reputation of the company and all who work within its walls. This means that you should have a policy in place that clearly states what happens at termination and that the privacy of the individual is to be respected at all times. Therefore, reasons for termination will be strictly confidential unless there are legal reasons where other communications might be necessary. It also means that when Joe’s leaving is announced, management is very careful to say that “while Joe is no longer part of our company, we all wish him well in his future endeavors.” Finally, it is extremely important that management commit to much more face time with Joe’s work group for the following few weeks to reassure them that the company supports them and is focused on their success.
If the work team wants to meet Joe after work to commiserate, you should not say anything (even though you will probably be hurt by their perceived ‘disloyalty’). Remember, most friendships forged in the workplace have a way of dying out once that person is no longer part of the work team. One or two venting parties shouldn’t be enough to worsen morale if you have taken the steps to keep it confidential and professional at work and have made extra effort in being physically present for your employees.
If you have a history of being a respectful and caring manager, Joe’s leaving should only be a brief bump in the road. No termination is easy, but often they are necessary. It’s hard and it’s emotional.
However, we are always amazed at how quickly employees can adjust to a “world without Joe” if the employer follows these steps and keeps his team focused on creating an even better workplace in the future.