A reader writes:
I just fired someone here at Big Research University. It was necessary, and I’ve got no regrets (and the full support of our department and higher-ups).
But while this person was terrible in many ways, they did have a great relationship with some faculty members they worked with. And those faculty are asking us (no doubt influenced by personal contact from the fired employee) why we did it so “suddenly” (as if anything’s fast at a university), and how we could deprive them of someone so wonderful. Of course, our official stance is to say, “this is an HR matter.”
But damn, does that response not fly. When, if ever, is it acceptable to give more information internally? Faculty are weirdly both fellow employees (although they tend not to think of themselves this way), and also customers with a lot of pull, and are very, very persistent.
I’d say this: “I don’t want to get into the details of Jane’s situation — just like I wouldn’t share confidential information about your employment with others here — but I can tell you that when someone is let go, it’s never sudden or a surprise. It comes after multiple conversations with the person about what the issues are and chances to show improvement, even though people outside those conversations won’t always know that.”
In other words, appeal to their respect for the person’s privacy, but explain how you handle firings in general so that they hear that firings don’t happen out of the blue. It sounds like the people approaching you are assuming that since they don’t know about any performance conversations, there weren’t any. Ideally, this will (a) prompt them to realize that “I didn’t know about this” doesn’t mean “it wasn’t happening,” and (b) convey that you don’t make arbitrary or sudden personnel decisions.
Of course, saying this credibly means that you also need to have established yourself as a fair and reasonable person, which hopefully you have done. Assuming so, this messaging will work with other reasonable people.