Firing an Employee. Making the Best of a Difficult Situation.

I can remember the first time I was present for an employee getting fired.  It was painful.  I was a manager trainee for a restaurant and my mentor was the General Manager.  The object of the termination was a slacker waiter.  We invited the waiter into the closet size office (the office was no bigger than a bathroom stall).  We all sidled in.  The victim sat on the floor safe, my mentor stood against the door and I was at what passed for a desk.  My mentor then went down a very long trail that seemed to never arrive at the destination. how to fire an employee

 He meandered through some of the waiter’s transgressions but, as with most slackers, there was no defining moment to home in on.  No defining “straw” that broke the camel’s back.  But there was no “straw”.  He was late a few times, was slow to get to tables, he had been there for years.  So after what felt like 2 hours but in reality was more like 20 minutes, the tension in the room was palpable, there was no air left to breath, my mentor finally  let the hammer down.  Our victim was surprised.  He was blindsided.  He never saw it coming (this was not good…they should always have some idea that they are not performing up to a standard).

So this was my first termination but certainly not my last.  After 30 years (but I look so young you say) of managing restaurants and Human Resources, here are some of the tactics I’ve learned:

1. Zero In.  Make sure you know why you are firing someone.  This may seem obvious, but if you are in Human Resources, you have had plenty of managers coming into your office telling you they want someone gone but have absolutely no “case” made.  Or there’s the manager who has a list of 99 transgressions that the employee is responsible for but they’ve failed to properly inform the employee.  This is a disaster (and a lawsuit or two)  waiting to happen.  If and when you get into the exit discussion, you better have your facts all lined up, or press pause and wait until they are all lined up…even if it’s a year down the road.  Zero-in on the facts before proceeding.

2. Phone a Lawyer.  A good employment lawyer can be your best friend, or if not friend, a great resource.  If the termination is not absolutely straight forward, as in the employee didn’t show up for work for three days and never called (otherwise known as job abandonment), it is always a good idea to consult with an attorney or employer advocacy group.  Make sure you aren’t discriminating in any way (have the last five people you terminated been over 60 or all been pregnant or all filed workers compensation claims in the last 30 days); make sure you stay out of hot water.  It’s a great idea to get a second outside opinion.  Spend the money up front so you can save in the long run.

3. Verify.  Cross check and verify your facts.  Do you have all the documentation?  The written warnings.  The verbal warnings.  The paper or email trail.  When you get into the termination discussion, you don’t want to be searching for dates or lost emails.  I think it’s a bad idea to review every transgression in detail in the termination discussion but make sure you know where all the information is.

4. Summary.  Come up with an outline of events with dates and a bullet about the transgression.  This does not need to be a manuscript, but you need a list to easily to refer to if the departing employee has any questions.   On December 1st, you missed the project deadline, on January 5th, your manager spoke to you about missing deadlines, on January 15th you missed two more deadlines.  Summarize the facts so you are not caught off guard.

5. Practice.  Sit down with the terminating manager and walk through the summary.  Talk about how to handle the discussion.  I’ve always told managers to be able to summarize why you’re letting the employee go in two sentences or less.  “Suzy, you’ve missed three project deadlines in the last three months, I’ve warned you several times that your job was in jeopardy.  Since you missed another deadline on Monday, we’ve decided to let you go.”  Please note that the manager should be saying this; NOT the Human Resource professional.  The manager and employee need to know that the manager is making this decision.

6. Schedule.  Discuss timing with the manager.  I know some people say always term on a Friday and other’s say always on a Monday.  Do what is best for the departing employee.  If everyone will be out for lunch at noon on Friday, this  may be the most humane time to let them go, so that they can pack up their workplace in private (make sure you have a box or two handy).  Maybe they usually come in at 7 AM and there is no one else around at that hour.  Do it then.  Privacy and compassion are critical.  Assume that the gossip mill will find out who did what and when.  The organization should treat any departing employee with compassion and respect.

7. Do it.  Pull the plug. Sit down in a private space (conference room or office).  Let the manager say his two sentences.  Remember that once someone has been told they are being let go, their limbic system (fight or flight or freeze response is in overdrive).  They are not thinking.  They may say some things, or cry (did I mention to always bring tissues) or shut down.  Let there be silence.  If they ask questions about benefits, answer them.  If they don’t, hand them your card.  Tell them to call you when they are ready.  If they want to pack up their things later, tell them to call with a time or pack up their locker for them and ship the box.  Have the manager walk them to their car.  If they want to say goodbye to some folks (and they are not hostile), let them do it.  This is a time for compassion and respect.

I have found that terminating people is the most difficult aspect of management.  If you do a thorough, consistent process every time you have an employee exit the organization,  you’ll know that you handled it with the compassion and grace we all deserve

Unresolved Conflict: The Elephant in the Room

As a restaurant owner and Human Resource professional over the past 20 plus years, I’ve seen plenty of unresolved workplace conflict.  It’s like the kitchen garbage can with rotting shrimp shells in the bottom; everyone smells it but no one wants to deal with it.  So we let it fester and things fester.

Blood pressure rises, people start avoiding each other, less eye contact; our mind goes wild with what we figure the other person is thinking.  We think we know their true motivation as the paranoia mounts.

There were countless times I was brought in to end the avoidance….to get to the bottom of the smelly mess.  So how do you handle the conflict?  Here are some tried and true maneuvers:

1. Timing is everything.  Don’t talk to someone when they just get back from vacation and are buried in email and return phone calls.  Give them a day or two to dig out and take a temperature check.  Read their body language.  A little tension in the shoulders? Using short curt sentences? Relax and wait.  Sense of humor is back?  Just got a great sales report?  This might be your opening.

2. Privacy.  This  cannot be emphasized enough.  Don’t bring up the smelly issue in front of or within ear shot of any other human being.  Never.  Ever.   Their listening skills will be out to lunch and their blood pressure will shoot up.  No one likes to be embarrassed and if there is even the slightest chance that UPS delivery guy might walk by; relax and wait.

3. Facts.  Research your smelly issue thoroughly.  No hunches.  No assumptions.  No jumping to conclusions.  Do your best reconnaissance, you watch CSI, investigate.  This is especially true in the “he said, she said, they said and we said” type of smelly issue.  Find any and all witnesses and alleged witnesses (I can’t tell you how many times in a harassment investigation that the “alleged witness” wasn’t even at work that day).  Don’t go at fact finding to just make sure you are“right”.

4. Suspend Assumptions. This goes closely with #3 but it’s imperative that you don’t decide the other person’s motivation; their ulterior motives.  You’ll have them being one step below Bernie Madoff if you’re not careful.  Empty your head of all your negative stereo types, like “Joe is always out for himself” or “Suzy is out to get me”.  Really?  You know all that?  As Byron Katie says at her website “the work”, “Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true?” Turn off mister ego and shut down your assumption machine.

5. Craft.  Think it through.  How are you going to broach the subject?  Maybe test the waters with another agenda item that isn’t confrontational like “I want to thank you for your help on the turnover report.  It really saved me some time and I got a chance to work on a more pressing project”.  A sincere, specific compliment is a nice lead in.  I can hear you nay-sayers out there…but I can’t think of anything nice to say.  Revisit #4.  Phrase the issue in terms of the other person’s viewpoint.  What is a reasonable explanation for their egregious act?  Give them an out like, “I’m sure you didn’t realize that when I was excluded from the finance team, I felt like you didn’t trust me”, or “I don’t think you are aware but when you told Suzy about the layoff plan, she assumed her job was in jeopardy”.  Think it through and craft the one or two sentences (no more) to summarize and present the smelly issue at hand (stay away from Never, Always and Should).

6. Love.  What are you crazy?  Love my co-worker, boss, workplace nemesis?  I don’t know why it works but if you decide you love someone, even your worst enemy ,the whole thing just works better.  Maybe it’s ch’i, but mentally embracing the other person (do not do this literally…for obvious reasons) helps you to be open to the possibilities; love your enemy.  Bob may never include you on the email with the financial reports but if you love him, it dampens down the resentment and blasts open the possibility of resolution. This also helps with #4.

7. Do it.  When you have completed the preceding steps; just do it.  Have the conversation.  Stay open minded and believe in a positive outcome.  Sometimes, OK a lot of times, it’s a complete surprise to the other person.  But it’s amazing how often people tip toe around an issue, especially a smelly one, and the offending person, had no idea that they angered you or that several people were avoiding them.  Most of the time people don’t realize how they are perceived and want to do their best.  Nine times out of ten, they apologize.  Give them the chance.

This might be messy the first, second or third time around.  But this is going to build trust in the long run.  You will be the Go-To person for conflict resolution and honest constructive feedback.  Slay the elephant.

Let me know what you think.  What workplace conflict are you dealing with?