confession: I used to suck at firing people

Unfortunately, I’m pretty competent at firing people, having had to do my share of it. I’ve written in the past about how firings should be done — and believe me when I tell you that that’s learned from hard experience. Hard, awful experience. In fact, one of the first times I had to fire someone, I really messed it up — largely because I was oblivious to the advice that I now chant like some sort of weird mantra to other managers. And today I’m going to tell you what happened so you can learn from what I did wrong.

At the time, I was a relatively new manager, and when I took the position, I inherited a problem employee: painfully slow, constantly made mistakes that were seeding the database he worked on with tons of land mines, impervious to help, a general mess. Rather than addressing it straightforwardly with him like one obviously should do, I did what lots of inexperienced managers do: I handled him way too gingerly. I made “suggestions” and expressed concerns, but never did I tell him directly that the problems were so serious that he would be fired if his work didn’t improve. I was vague. I thought I was choosing the kinder option, protecting his feelings, which of course was ridiculous — there’s nothing kind about denying someone the opportunity to know they’re on the path to job loss.

Inevitably, I ended up having to fire him — and because of my vagueness leading up to it, he was genuinely shocked, said he hadn’t seen it coming, even cried. I hadn’t been so kind, it turned out.

And that’s not all. A couple of months later he sued, claiming I had fired him because he had Crohn’s Disease, which would have been a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act if it were true. I was baffled — I knew he’d been fired for poor performance and that the fact that he had a disability was irrelevant (and indeed, we ultimately won the suit). But by not being direct enough about how bad his performance was, I had opened the door to him speculating on what the cause might have been. I could have avoided a months-long legal mess (as well as his legitimate bewilderment) by just getting over my own discomfort and telling him forthrightly the ways in which his performance was unsatisfactory. I put my own comfort ahead of managing well, and as a result, I exposed my company to legal jeopardy and left an employee completely dumbfounded about why he was let go.

Years later, I’m still cringing when I think about how my inexperience and misplaced desire to be nice made me a nightmare manager for that guy. These days, my employees who struggle hear about it — and some of them take the warnings and improve and some of them don’t, but none of them have been surprised by bad news since.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. Lisa*

    Funny, you and I were posting about the very same thing this morning! I so get what you are saying and until a supervisor has experienced it, it is so hard for them to “get it.” I will keep trying though!

  2. Anonymous*

    Bravo on highlighting the experience. All too often, I find we accommodate problem staff because of our own discomforts – much to the sacrifice and detriment of our productive employees

  3. Liz Williams*

    It’s the law of unintended consequences on crack! I love how you’ve framed this, and how anonymous extended it: Not only does our desire not to hurt someone’s feelings end up harming everyone (productive employees, team morale, non-performing employee, company, us), it’s so much more painful! Thank you for so clearly identifying the culprit: wanting to be kind. I’m thinking in terms of Orwellian Paradoxes this morning (war is peace,etc.), but it fits here: sometimes the kindest action feels cruel.

    I’ve had to learn this the hard way too – in some ways I think I never stop learning it. My growing edge is to infuse the bracing honesty with kindness – one not erasing the other – to speak up at the first glimmer of a problem, and to follow up like a fanatic.

    Thank you for being so honest and so eloquent about this.

  4. class factotum*

    It’s just like breaking up with someone. You don’t do him any favors by continuing to date him — or telling him you want “to see other people” — or saying that you want to take a “temporary break.”

    Have the guts and the kindness to break up fast and clean so he won’t lie at home at night thinking, “She said a ‘temporary break,’ so she’ll be calling me in a week.” Let him move on with his life.

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