It’s one of the most, if not the most, difficult and uncomfortable task you have to execute as a supervising manager. You pray it never comes. And that is telling someone that they have to leave the company. It doesn’t matter when or how long they have. Or if they’re good enough to find another job before they run out of money. It still makes it tough to tell someone that s/he is losing the job.
When you can rationalise that you’ve done everything in your power to make sure it doesn’t happen, it does mitigate the guilt to some extent. And if there is more than one that has to be given the message, it helps to avoid that it is personal or that the person feels there is a fault in him/her for being let go.
In fact, there are ways where you feel you’ve done the best under the circumstances. That you even tried to stop it from happening. If you’ve done that you’re a better manager than others definitely. You’ll make mistakes even in this approach. But at least you meant well.
So what is that you can do to lessen the pain, especially where this one person has to be told?
Start weeks before
This is unless you’ve just been asked by your boss or HR that someone particular under you has to go immediately. That will be rare. This extreme case will normally happen only if there has been a revelation that the employee has done something highly unethical.
But if it’s a case of where the person has been underachieving or if there is a restructuring and s/he doesn’t fit in the future scheme of things, then surely it hasn’t happened overnight. Unless again, you’ve been kept out of the loop on the restructuring, in which case you should demand that you be given time. For now, let’s keep these uncommon instances on the side. Let’s restrict this to underperformance or an attitude problem.
So yes, you must begin the process much in advance for the sake of not just the employee but yourself also. No matter how you justify, not planning someone’s exit professionally, compassionately and fairly will come to bite your conscience and disturb your focus on work. Worse, your team may look down on you.
First, list down everything that has led to the point where you feel someone has to be let go. Try and do it when you are most relaxed and free from work anxiety. It’s important that you don’t rush and miss one or two points that would actually make your case stronger. Discuss with the HR head and take input and review where required.
Second, revisit the list after a day or two and ask yourself: Was it truly the concerned employee’s fault that s/he wasn’t able to do that task or that you did enough to change any attitude problems? If not then chalk out a plan to give that employee an opportunity to redeem. If it means counselling or guiding how to do the task, take time out for that. Then revisit a few days later to see if it made a difference. In this case let us assume that it didn’t. Leave by dropping a hint that the person is on thin ice but that s/he has your support for now. If s/he has a family bring up the fact that they are in all likelihood dependent on the person working and to not put employment on the line.
(Note: Be very sure that others in the department are far better than that person, otherwise you either need to let go others too or do not single this person out).
Always interact with sincerity
Third, call the person in when you are sure you have a free hour. Or if the person has a room then ask to come over. There is nothing better than to talk to a person where s/he is most comfortable, in their own surroundings. After having praised him/her for even the smallest good s/he has done over a period of time, bring up the fact that more was and is required as per your last counselling session. Point out the flaws or inadequacies and what others are achieving with the same opportunities.
However, listen with care and empathy. And with sincerity. There might be something you weren’t aware of. Afterwards, be sure to send him a polite email regarding your discussion.
Fourth, repeat after a week this time with the HR head or assigned HR person present. This will not just give you a witness but also send a message to the person that this is getting serious. In this meeting remind the person that you have counselled him/her some time back and also done your best to help in improvement of the performance/attitude/shortcomings. This should not look like a complaint or sound frustrating. It should be methodical, list instances and overall should come out that you’ve done your best for the person and for the things not to reach this stage.
Always give a last chance
Fifth, give the person one last chance. Yes, even at this stage after formally informing of the inadequacies and the cause of this talk, give one more opportunity. Except this one will be short. Maybe a week or a fortnight. Say you are not hopeful but are prepared to be surprised. Believe me people have risen from the ashes when faced with the fact that they are about to be let go. By now, the person will recall your first visit and that friendly warning. If they don’t that’s not your problem but don’t say that. Just say you’ve been trying your best. Talk in the present. Give hope still.
Before departing, tell the person you’ll look out for another position within the company or in another company outside through your contacts. Tell HR to do the same. This is assuming the problem is not a bad attitude. You should never recommend anyone with a bad attitude. You’ll spoil your relationships where you’ve sent the person. Don’t take any guilt that far.
Sixth and last, have a conversation after a week again with HR present. If there has been a miracle and improvement to your satisfaction give it another month. And take it from there whether to retain or let go. For the moment, let us assume it hasn’t and the time has come. Ask the person to take time off from work. Stay home or take a trip for a week. Say that will count in the person’s notice period. Make sure that whatever the problem or attitude, you ensure a month’s pay with full benefits redeemable, like provident fund and/or gratuity. But before all that take a resignation whether with immediate effect or effective after 30 days. Never fail to express gratitude for the effort they have made and repeat the good (there will always be some) they have done on the job.
The first one sounds odd, especially if it is for a bad attitude. But remember whatever the size of the company it is bigger than the person. It can take that hit. Also, it gives the employee no reason to bad mouth the company. Further, all employees have a good feeling about the management and consider it humane or generous, that it still gave full help to someone who let down the company or the boss. For one month’s pay you have achieved what several internal marketing campaigns won’t.
Take resignation humanly
There will be the odd person who doesn’t admit their flaws or bad attitude and challenges you to terminate. Here the temptation is to hand over to HR. Don’t. Not yet. Be seen to be taking the responsibility for your action and challenging the challenger though politely. Along with HR as your support inform that it will harm the person’s career infinitely because future employers will find out and be vary of hiring someone who had to be terminated.
Also in case of termination the person won’t get a recommendation letter (neutrally worded of course just citing the routine), that you and HR will state the reality if someone calls for reference check (rather than a diplomatically worded reply focussing on whatever strengths the person has) and finally the company can afford a lawyer that will cite the email in which the person was warned.
Normally, better sense prevails and if you have followed all those steps that led to letting the person go eventually, have been genuine in your concern, words and body language and are still looking out for a job for the person, s/he will simply resign. By now s/he will have been looking out for other opportunities and maybe one will be at a maturing stage.
There may be other ways but this is what I’ve followed almost all the time. There has been the odd instance when I’ve had no choice but to fire someone on the spot. But that was because probation period was at an end and the person had been counselled for attitude. No one’s perfect and maybe I could have handled it better. But in the same company, I’d let go three people after the above process and I received the best compliment when the vice chairman of the group, who had headed them once told me they had come to say goodbye and said they accepted that they had to go. And he asked me to brief him on what I’d said that had made it such an easy exit for everyone.
So yes, there is a courteous way. Ideally, avoid talking ill about the employee, while the process of letting him go continues, especially after the person has gone. Inform the team that it’s a sad day when a team member leaves, no matter what the issue was. Always say you have let him go than say he’s been fired. Always guard the person’s dignity.
I’ve made mistakes and learned along the way. But what was always going for me was that I have never in my career looked to fire someone for a cost benefit. We do not give rizq, Allah does. But we cannot take away rizq for no fault of the person’s, especially for our benefit or salvation.
(The writer is a Corporate Consultant and Coach and former CEO with over 35 years of experience in leadership, building brands and organisational strategy. He now advises on Business Strategy, Marketing, HR and Media Management)