confession: I used to suck at firing people

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 uncertain 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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