“You’re Fired” Shouldn’t Be the First Conversation

By Robert Glazer, an EO Boston member, and founder and managing director of Acceleration Partners

“Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” — Oscar Wilde

Firing someone who doesn’t see it coming is a soul-crushing chore. No other decision you’ll make as a business owner takes such a toll on everyone involved. I’m not talking about lay-offs or disruptions caused by outside forces. Smart employees will see that coming. I’m talking about individuals who, somehow, just aren’t working out. Too often “You’re fired!” is the first conversation you have with the person you are letting go, but it shouldn’t be.

There are typically two situations when the person fired may not have seen it coming:

  1. They don’t fit the culture: Let’s say “John” might be a hard worker who is nice to be around. He’s also professional, helpful and hygienic. The problem is that your company’s culture values independent, quick decision-making, and John has proven to be a team player who thrives under a more hierarchical company structure. John isn’t going to work out.
  2. They fit the culture, but not the role: “Jane” fits in well with the company culture— she is smart, works hard and brings interesting ideas to the table. It may be due to lack of experience or a need for additional training, but Jane can’t do the job she was hired to do, at least, not do it well.

Large companies have the flexibility, when they discover someone like Jane, to move her around and try to find the right role for her. At smaller companies, however, there may only be one or two options for Jane. Door No. 3 is the exit.

The next time you’re getting ready to fire someone, take a breath and think about all the things you could have done to avoid hiring this person in the first place. Start with the interview process: How did John and Jane get by the screening? How can you change the process to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

The best place to set expectations for your company is during the interview process. Ask open-ended questions. Listen to prospective employees and talk with them, not at them. Be open and very clear about what is expected of the person you hire. If you’re going to invest valuable company resources training employees, then you need to make doubly sure that you hire people who want to be part of your company and can do the work expected of them.

The first 90 days are crucial. If you’re paying attention, you can weed out 98% of the bad hires during this time. Do it, but not before you’ve shared your concerns with the employee. Make sure he clearly knows how he is not living up to your expectations, and what he can do about it. Maybe he’ll do what needs to be done and turn out to be a great employee. But, if he does not improve within the first three months, then do the right thing for both him and your company and let him go. Because you will have already expressed your concerns, it is unlikely he’ll be surprised. It will still, most likely, be an unpleasant experience, but it won’t feel like an ambush.

Some companies use cash incentives to ease this transition period. Amazon recently announced that, like Zappos, it is going to offer unhappy employees cash to quit. Netflix offers a similar program for their executives, but Amazon’s program includes warehouse employees. If you want to leave and open up a spot for someone who wants to be there, here’s US$5,000. Good luck to you.

That’s how valuable it is to find good employees who fit the role and culture. Companies see US$5,000 to get rid of John or Jane as a bargain.

Would you pay US$5,000 to avoid having to fire people?

Robert Glazer is the Chapter President of EO Boston, a group comprised of 108  entrepreneurs who own a company with gross annual sales exceeding US$1 million. EO enables small and large business owners to learn from each other, leading to greater business success and an enriched personal life.

Categories: Best Practices Company Culture Human Resources

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