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A Leader’s Challenge: Firing People

Firing people from their jobs is one of the worst things I’ve had to do as a leader in a non-profit organization.  Laying others off was equally difficult. 

How could it not be awful? I was directly affecting their financial status, their identities, their personal well-being and family life.  By my action, I was plunging them into a state of fear, anger and loss. 

They didn’t care that there were financial reasons for their job being eliminated.  Nor did they really care or understand that the position they held had changed in a way that they could no longer really do it.  All they knew was that everything they counted on was no longer there.  Certainty was gone.  Relationships they relied on – gone.  Routines they repeated daily – gone.  Yes, they got severance and health care and outplacement help and references. While it helped, that was little consolation for all they lost. 

With most of the people I fired or laid off, I was able to do it with compassion and to treat them with dignity. They got to say their goodbyes. To pack up their things in their own time. To leave unescorted.  And to be free to return to visit any time they wanted. Some were very angry with me, and I think remain so to this day. I get it. I understand the immensity of my action. I really do.

I spent a good amount of time talking to those left behind in the workplace, explaining as much as possible the circumstances surrounding the layoff or the letting go of the specific people or person, while preserving their dignity and privacy. They mourned. Some were very angry with me. Those who couldn’t get over their anger did end up leaving the organization because they could no longer respect my leadership. I get it. That was their path and choice.

By contrast, when I was fired from that same organization I led, I was treated as horribly as most American workplaces treat people they fire. Not allowed to go back to the office until months later and then only after hours with someone at my side checking to make sure I only took my things and nothing that was property of the organization, most of my things delivered to me in big legal boxes, my phone turned off while I was being fired so I couldn’t let anyone know what had happened, no access to any electronic files so I lost all my personal mail and letters, no chance to say goodbye to anyone. 

It was as if I had overnight been transformed into a dangerous predator or criminal likely to do horrible damage if let loose. I got to add shame to the feelings of fear, anger and loss.

As a career coach, I’ve heard so many stories from people who were fired in the same way I was, and help people heal from this trauma.  Because it is trauma, no matter how bosses and HR justify those insulting practices. “It’s just business” is the catch-phrase often used to excuse dehumanizing behavior. Or there are “legal reasons” for people being rapidly escorted out by a security guard. 

There must be a better way to deal with what I’ll call “job transitions” or “job endings.”  Even the word “termination” conveys a sense of killing rather than ending.

People do outgrow jobs, job and organizational needs change, financial conditions change – there are many reasons that contribute to layoffs and the need to let someone go from their job.  Given the consequences of that action as enumerated above, the act of ending someone’s employment needs far more attention and care than it is currently given.

The first thing to remember is that job transitions are deeply personal. They happen in a business context, to people. People who have emotions, identities, dignity, and brains.  Also there are many parties involved in job transitions and job endings: the person leaving, the person delivering the message, and the people left behind. Denying the personal effect on all these actors is unrealistic and in my opinion cruel – as well as bound to produce unwanted negative consequences for you as a leader.   

Consider the positive effect of this on those employees remaining in the workplace. Simply acknowledging that someone is no longer working there and allowing others to have their feelings about it is a powerful leadership action that can reduce people’s anger toward you as leader and fear about their own future.

As a leader, it’s wise to “hire slowly and fire compassionately” in order to build a flourishing and sustainable work culture.  Bringing compassion to the process of job endings could help this life-altering event not destroy people’s lives and self-esteem, cloaked as it often now is with humiliation and pain.  And it can help your workplace face and recover from the wound it suffers when a member of the group is suddenly absent.

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