And the Queen said “Off with their heads!”-Management Tips on Firing People

Off with their heads! And the procession moved on”. (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

The reaction of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland is fortunately not the typical reaction I see in women managers, especially when dealing with the sensitive issue of firing people. Generally in my many years of management experience, I find that women do a better job at terminating employees than men do but at the same time they also have a harder time implementing the act of termination.

If you are in a management position, then you will have to carry out a termination sometime in your career, if you have not already done it. If you are in a management position then you also know you have the responsibility to carry out a termination if necessary.  It is your responsibility to run your business in the best interest of the company and get the best possible results for your owners and shareholders. This means somewhere, sometime down the line you will be firing someone, no matter if you want to or not.

I really hate to fire people, although I have to admit I have had to carry out hundreds of terminations so far, throughout the lifetime of my career. What is always the utmost in my mind when I carry out a termination is– this is what I signed up for–a management position, and firing people is part of the job. Terminating people, firing people, or you may prefer to call it releasing people (or as George Clooney put it in Up in the Air, “telling people your position is no longer available”) is your job and if you can do this part of your job the owners will find someone else who can (and probably not George Clooney).

If you do not implement the process of termination, then you will be the one being terminated because you did not do what was in the best for the company, owners and shareholders. This is what I try to remember each time I have to implement a termination process – it is them or me– someone is going to get fired.

This may sound terrible, but I think you will find thinking like this will help you get through the process. Once you adapt to this state of mind and you have accepted what you have to do, you can move yourself from the Acceptance Phase to the Preparation Phase.

The Preparation Phase is the second phase in the termination process.

The first thing many women managers do, is begin the Preparation Phase by imaging all the possible outcomes of the termination, based on what other person’s reaction will be. This is the wrong way to start. Trying to predict the reactions of others is a waste of your time and will only bring you more anxiety than needed, especially if you do not like to fire people.

In my years of firing or terminating people, I have found you can never predict reactions. I have seen calm people explode, highly agitated people be relieved, I have had people cry, laugh, taunt me, be happy, be sad and about every emotion in between. You cannot control the reactions of others, so do not dwell on what may happen, instead prepare yourself for the conversation.

Good preparation is the key to making any termination process easier and good preparation begins with being very clear about why someone is being fired, laid off, or terminated.

Most often, terminations can be simply categorized. I use the following categories when reflecting on the reason for the termination and relate the certain preparation techniques depending on the situation.  Below are the categories I use to categorize terminations and the related preparation for each category.

Individual Terminations – The Underperformer

The underperformer is the person who does not deliver the work he/she is supposed to. The underperformance may have many reasons for their underperformance (laziness, distraction, lack of interest and so on) but the reasons do not matter, it is that fact he/she is not delivering that matters. Good management practices would assume before terminating the underperformer you have had many previous conversations with this person concerning their performance. If you have, then this kind of termination is the easiest because they are not doing their job.  If you have not, then you should reflect on your own management skills.

In preparing for this kind of termination, it is best to focus the previous conversations you have had with them and the fact that the situation has not gotten any better.  You must use concrete examples (no more than one or two). Be sure in your observations and reflect the employee’s results and make sure they understand the termination is a consequence of their performance. This type of termination although unpleasant, is really quite simple.

Individual Terminations – The Under Qualified Employee

I find this kind of termination the most difficult because normally the company or the management is partly responsible for creating the situation. This situation normally occurs when a person has some good qualities, can deliver partially but is generally in the wrong position. This can occur because of poor hiring practices, but most often is a result of internal transfers or promotions that go wrong. Generally these individuals were over promoted or not correctly transferred.

Preparation for this is difficult, and the best is to focus on what you think qualifications for the position are and what the strengths and weaknesses of the individual are. Hopefully before entering into a discussion concerning the termination of such an individual, you have explored transferring them back to their position or explored finding a position for them at the appropriate level or in the appropriate department.  If this is not possible and you are forced to release such an individual then prepare yourself by giving them feedback as what kind of skills are needed for the job, where their strengths lie and how they can use their strengths to help find the appropriate position in the workforce.

Multiple Employees– Downsizing a Team

When you are forced to downsize, your decisions on whom to release will be most logically the team members, who contribute the least and deliver the least in the team. Preparation for this kind of discussion should be a short explanation on why the company needs to downsize, followed on a clear explanation of your decision process which resulted in who would be released.  This should be followed by concrete performance criteria that demonstrate why a person was released and not another.  Here, very similar to the underperformer or under qualified individual termination, concrete demonstrations of previous performance reviews or comparative performance qualifications are helpful.

Multiple Employees– Eliminating Jobs

Eliminating Jobs can be normally attributed to replacing them with technical solutions or outsourcing. Here the preparation should be to explain why the change is happening, why it is necessary for the company to implement the change, what skills are needed for the continued health of the company. Since communicating this kind of termination can be very emotional and often challenged (especially in union situations) you have to be very well prepared with facts that support the company’s decision and be prepared not to react to emotional outbursts.

Individual/Multiple Employee – Immediate Termination

Generally there is very little time to prepare for this kind of termination because it usually happens very quickly due to some kind of extreme breach of contract. My only advice is to be very clear in the preparation, document the incident fully and accurately, record witnesses immediately and keep all documents. These kinds of terminations – if not recorded and prepared accurately – can often lead to legal or labor actions.

Multiple Employees– Closing a Business

This is the termination situation we have the least control of. In this situation preparation should be focused on the series of events. Who you inform when. The series of events here are much more important than the message because the message is inevitable, but the series of the communication can determine if the company goes into immediate collapse or not. In this case plan the series of events.

Once the preparation is done, then it is time to implement the process.  Here are my tips in implementing the termination process. My tips in implementing the process are taking the following steps:

  1. Acceptance Phase

Remember you are there for the company, owners and shareholders, if you do not do your job, then you will be the one that is hearing off your heads and the process will move on.

  1. Preparation Phase

Do not get wrapped up or waste energy on what the reactions will be, you cannot control them anyways, prepare according to the type of termination.

  1. Implementation Phase- follow the following steps
  • Set up – explain situation, reflect on previous conversations (for example: We have spoken on previous occasions about your lack of delivery, we have to downsize the company by 10%, etc.)
  • Give the facts – state the situation clearly, ensure there is no possibility that they do not understand they are being terminated.
  • Provide some positive feedback if possible – this is highly dependent on the situation and do not overdo the positive feedback (for example: I am sure you find a position better suited for your skills, we have placement services for those being laid off, I believe you could deliver if you wanted to but unfortunately we cannot keep waiting, etc.).
  • Clearly state the next steps in the Process – Be clear about what happens next (for example: Please gather your goods today, we will transition everyone out of the workplace by the end of the month)
  • Do not react to questions or emotional outbreaks, keep returning to the above steps
  • Be courteous and wish them all the best for the future then firmly close the conversation (this may be difficult in immediate termination, then it is best to just close the conversations on the next steps)

In the end, after all the advice I have given you, you will probably still be viewed as the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, the Queen who ordered “Off with their heads!”  This cannot be helped, it is the nature of your position and you will need to live with this or decide you are not in the right position.  At least I hope my advice with help you get through the process a little easier.