By trade and training I am a writer and editor. I never had any education in managing people until I received the best kind: being thrust into the middle of it and being forced to learn without any preformed conceptions from some old tradition of management that academics espouse. I’m not belittling education. It would have been helpful, and trained managers are no doubt much better than me. But sometimes it’s good to get involved in something without the notions instilled in you that everyone else has.
Management is pretty easy for me, but I remember that one thing that got me at first was letting people go. It was hard, it sucked, and at first, I lost sleep over it. I am not the kind of guy who likes to displease people. For the record, it is still hard, it still sucks, and yeah, sometimes I still lose sleep over it. When I was appointed to a management position that required me to get rid of a whole lot of deadwood and revitalize a project, I didn’t sleep much at all for a week.
I often wondered — if I’d had some education in management, would this come easier to me? Would I have learned some of the skills and techniques required to let people go? For some reason I doubt there’s much that makes it easier, but there are probably a few tricks you learn in business school that would help. I don’t have those. What I have got is what I’ve figured out on my own, sometimes after making painful mistakes. I hope you don’t make them yourself.
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I don’t mean to say you have to tell the individual in question what a terrible and incompetent person they are and that you’ve hated every piece of work they have done for you.
What I mean is that there’s a big temptation to color the truth, tell half-truths or even complete lies (though they do seem to be, at first white lies), in order to comfort the individual losing their paycheck. We know it’s painful to be let go and for most people, the natural instinct is to want to lessen that pain.
The bottom line is: if you tell them that they were good at their job, they’ll just be confused, and they’ll still be hurt because they are suddenly out of an income. The obvious exception is when you’re firing them because of redundancy or downsizing, in which case they quite possibly could’ve been good at their job and they’ll be getting some compensation to keep them going for a while anyway.
It is important to be as emotionally neutral as you can be. You don’t want to be flustering with smiles and sympathy, and you don’t want to be cold and harsh. Keep it pleasant, but don’t be too friendly. You are not their comforter and trying to be will result in trouble. Let them down as easy as you can without being unprofessional, and then let them go home to their spouse, family or friends for that comfort.
It’s worth reiterating that being neutral doesn’t mean being cold or putting on your poker face. Be nice, but not too nice or not nice enough.
Be empathetic, not sympathetic. Do understand the individual’s situation. Be understanding when you talk to them and they get angry or frustrated — don’t flip out back at them. Be understanding and refer them to some kind of resource that advertises jobs for people in their field (one site I manage is convenient in that we run a job board). All in all, be understanding. Provide whatever assistance you can and whatever resources your company offers outgoing employees (or even long-time contractors).
Make sure you are decisive in tone and wording. If, in your uncertainty and unease, you use wording that seems less certain but gives them wiggle room to argue their way back in, they’ll try and take it. Sure, their attempts might not succeed — you’ve only said things that way to make things less uncomfortable for yourself, not because you meant it. But it will make things very uncomfortable and opens the door for a very heated argument.
Get It Done
Don’t look for way to put off the firing. It’s got to be done and delaying the inevitable makes it harder for you. It may even leave the individual in question feeling a bit nervous — I’ve read some professionals say that, according to research, employees almost always know when they’re about to be sacked.
It is plainly more difficult and stressful for everyone involved when you put off the firing until another day. Once the decision has been made, make the arrangements straight away.
Don’t make a martyr of the employee. Every time you let someone go it should be done respectfully and privately. You should have someone else present to act as a witness because often, firing someone causes them to go after you with lawyers. That individual should be one of your own colleagues or a superior of yours — nobody equal to them in the organization. Being fired with one of your peers present is embarassing for the individual.
Firing people isn’t easy. It probably does not become easy for anyone, though you might become desensitized to it. These tips will ensure you do a job you can’t kick yourself for afterwards and help prevent any escalations in the situation or any false hope in the terminated individual’s mind.
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