Not so fast: Why you need to think, plan and train before you fire

By Alyssa Hurst

You’d have a hard time asking a CEO for advice or flipping through the pages of a business publication without coming across the words “hire slow, fire fast.” What’s more, with many experts predicting a major shortage of talent as the baby boomers retire, CEOs are listening. But some HR experts say it might be time to slow down and work out a strategy.

Choosing the right time to fire an employee who’s wrong for you is certainly key, but that’s not to say you should be hasty with the process of firing. As Robert Rosend, VP of HR at Synovos, puts it, “You have to put as much rigor around your termination process as you do with your hiring process.”

Get your ducks in a row first

Coming to a decision as to whether (and when) you should fire someone is just a fraction of the actual termination. First, you have to consider things like severance, transition services, whether or not the employee has the potential to become violent, how you are going to coordinate cutting off access, whether you should escort that employee out, and how that decision is going to be communicated to the rest of the team.

It sounds like a lot to put in place, but it comes down to respect, says Steve Cadigan, former VP of talent at LinkedIn. and now talent advisor, speaker and board member at Cadigan Talent Ventures. “Manage [employees] with respect, manage the process with respect.”

One way to show respect “is by offering severance benefits, which can be a combination of cash severance, health benefits continuation and outplacement services,” says Michelle Vitus, founder and CEO of Slate Advisers, a company that offers outsourced transition services for those who have been laid off or terminated. “A termination is never going to feel warm and fuzzy, but you can help the person have a smoother transition.

But it’s crucial to make sure decisions regarding severance and firing procedures are made ahead of time. In fact, Cadigan believes that one of the most important parts of your firing protocol is to create a severance grid. “What I see happen is that exceptions are made … because there was no policy,” he says. “You need a documented grid, and it’s usually a combination of your level in the company and your years of service.”

The importance of tact

In addition to lining up things like severance beforehand, Vitus suggests making sure you have chosen the right person to have that crucial conversation with your outbound employee. “Getting fired is a shock and people will not remember the exact words that were said, but they will remember how it made them feel,” she says. “So it’s about ensuring that whoever is doing that firing comes with empathy and with respect, such that the employee steps away with that feeling.”

And, says Rosend, making sure those conversations go smoothly starts with training. The success of a firing ultimately boils down to CEOs and the culture they have created. “CEOs should really make sure that their officers, their management team, understand the protocols and the way people should be treated when they are terminated. And I think that comes from the corner office,” he says.

When crafting procedures for terminations, CEOs and HR leaders should also consider what happens in the immediate aftermath of the firing. “What should they be doing with their equipment? Do they have a chance to say goodbye to their colleagues, or are they going to be escorted out? Those details sound petty, but being very clear on next steps and what the individual can expect is an important part of ending that conversation,” says Vitus.

Her advice: “In most cases, the outgoing employee is going to respond in such a way that you can show them respect by giving them some flexibility to depart on their own time within the day and not feel like they need to be escorted out.”

Once the decision to fire an employee has been made, Rosend advocates for holding a meeting with relevant parties to discuss the possible outcomes. “The mistake is [not being] prepared for the conversation. They don’t walk through the potential scenarios of the discussion and they are not prepared for the different reactions,” he says. “When you’re about to terminate somebody, you always sit down and say, ‘What do we know about this person?’”

Having the talk

Rosend has the firing process down. He has found himself receiving thank-you letters and hugs in the aftermath of firings, and still hears from people years later who appreciate the way he handled that tough conversation.

What’s his secret?

“You’ve got to get out of your own skin and put yourself in their place. Part of it is, what can I do to really help someone get through this, because I’m about to change their lives,” says Rosend.

As part of that, Rosend says the company has to “really understand where that person’s world is at right now. … Some would say, who cares? Their life, their problem. The reality is, you should care because you are making a decision about somebody’s life,” he says.

Rosend’s conversations often start with the words, “This is not going to be an easy discussion.” For the person on the other side of the table, this has a humanizing effect.

After that, Rosend likes to put some of the control back in the hands of the terminated employee. “I like to start to give people some choices,” he says. “I want you to think about whether this is the right job for you. If it’s not, what are the alternatives? Is there another job in the company that is less stressful? Would it be better to look outside the company? If that’s the case, I’ll help you.”

By doing this, you don’t just leave the employee feeling helpless, “and when you look at the psychology of that, the person becomes less resistant, less complicated,” says Rosend.

Rosend’s strategy works so well because he prevents what says Eliot Wagonheim, partner at Wagonheim Law, calls moral outrage. “There’s a difference between being upset, being disappointed, maybe being embarrassed, and being outraged,” he says. “Frequently, the difference between those two reactions and their very different ramifications is communication.”

On the other side of the coin from Rosend are managers who take a no-nonsense approach to firing. “A business owner comes in and has this attitude of being really tough-minded … and decides that he or she is going to make a point,” says Wagonheim. “That’s a very different scenario, and one much more likely to engender feelings of outrage.”

Ultimately, says Wagonheim, “there’s a big difference when you fire somebody preserving their essential dignity as a person, and when you fire somebody and treat them as collateral damage.”

It’s about your reputation

Getting your firing protocol down and doing it right isn’t just about your employee; it’s about your company’s reputation and ability to attract new talent. Just as you can’t tease firing out of the employee lifecycle, you can’t separate firing from your company’s success.

Preserving your reputation as an employer starts with helping your former employees get back on their feet. “You want them employed quickly. The sooner they get another job, the sooner they stop looking back and feeling pissed off,” says Cadigan. “Try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve got a few leads. I’ve got a few colleagues I’d like you to meet with.’”

The reality of the situation is that when you fire one person, the entire staff is going to be taking notes. “[It’s a mistake] to forget that everyone else is watching how you handle this — that everyone else is going to think that however you handle this is how you are going to handle it with them,” says Cadigan.

Also, with employees ready to share their experience on Glassdoor and other forms of social media, you can’t afford to take firing lightly. “If you’ve developed a reputation as a company that is very callous toward its employees and sees people as a commodity, then you aren’t going to be the destination of choice for a great employee,” says Wagonheim. “You’re going to be the destination of choice for a desperate employee.”

Begin at the end: Why you need to hire with firing in mind

Hiring and firing are inherently linked in the employee lifecycle.

“The art of firing well starts with how you are going to hire people,” says Eliot Wagonheim, partner at Wagonheim Law. “It doesn’t start when you decide to fire somebody.”

Wagonheim admits that hiring is fun and firing is hard, but the two are impossible to separate. In his book Fire, Aim, Ready, Wagonheim drives home the point that Stephen Covey made famous in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “You’ve got to begin everything with the end in mind.”

“Companies give a lot of thought to the employee lifecycle. How are we going to onboard people? How are we going to effectively engage them as employees? … And then, when it gets to the end of the employee lifecycle, a lot of times there is less thought given to what that exit looks like,” says Michelle Vitus, founder and CEO of Slate Advisers.

So, when you set out on the enjoyable task of finding somebody to join your staff, Wagonheim advocates setting clear expectations from the outset. “What if you go back to that hiring conversation and right before you … extend your hand across the table … you say, ‘Here’s why I’m going to fire you,’” says Wagonheim. “I’m going to fire you if you lose the McCormick account, if your customer satisfaction rating is below 90 percent, and if you’re over budget and behind schedule.”

Wagonheim argues that this conversation, as unusual as it may sound, is a key element, not only in setting your employee up for success, but also in smoothing out the firing process.

“[Employers] first have to make sure the employee and all the supervisors are on the exact same page as to what the job is — what success means and what failure means,” says Wagonheim.

When people have a clear idea of the expectations of their positions, you reduce your risk of blindsiding them if the time to fire ever comes around, and this is crucial.

“The … big mistake I see CEOs and executives make is that they terminate without ever having a conversation with the person to say ‘your performance is so shy of the mark,’” says Steve Cadigan, former VP of talent at LinkedIn. “If you blindside people, shame on you.”

The problem with reviews

In addition to setting clear expectations from the point of hiring, Wagonheim suggests another early-day strategy that will ultimately help you when it’s time to fire: “I don’t think performance evaluations should be given.”

As Wagonheim explains, managers are rarely trained on the objective criteria when it comes to scoring. Tempted to avoid confrontation while still leaving room for improvement, supervisors tend to stick to safe mid-range numbers regardless of actual performance — meaning that if you have an evaluation scale from one to five, almost everyone is going to end up with a three or four. This leads to inaccurate evaluations that can cause confusion if employees find themselves on the chopping block later.

By giving ongoing, real-time feedback rather than rating your employees on a numerical scale, you can avoid “putting in each employee’s personnel file exhibit number one for their discrimination case against you,” says Wagonheim. He explains that when you tell employees they have been fired for poor performance and they can come back with performance reviews that tell a different story, you lend credibility to any claims of wrongful termination.

“In my years as a litigator, I have never seen performance evaluations entered as an exhibit on the company’s behalf. But I have never had a case where performance evaluations were not entered as an exhibit on the employee’s behalf,” says Wagonheim.

So what’s the alternative? “If someone is falling behind on performance … their manager should be providing them with ongoing feedback on the quality of their work and the expectations going forward so it isn’t a shock to them when they are let go,” says Vitus.