how do you replace an employee who doesn’t know she’s being fired?

A reader writes:

I’ve been going through your archives to see if you had any advice on replacing a current employee before they know they are being replaced, when that employee is HR. In a small company with one HR person we certainly can’t place an ad — and they want to have viable candidates before this person is let go. This is due to serious performance issues which have been addressed, time and again, yet continue. I am the one picking up the slack for what isn’t being done and am now involved in the replacement process.

The one HR professional I knew who was on the market got a job 15 days before I was asked to see if she was interested. That exhausted all our personal connections — such as they were.

This can’t be uncommon, but it’s really hard to find anything written about this.

Well, the first thing I’d ask is: Are you sure that’s the order you have to do things in? I strongly advise firing her first and then launching your search — largely because it feels like the right thing to do, but also because you want the strongest candidate pool possible, and if you’re sneaking around conducting the search covertly, you’re almost definitely going to compromise your ability to do that.

Yes, firing her first does mean that the position would be vacant for a short time (likely 4-6 weeks, as long as you move through the hiring process with reasonable speed), but I’d be surprised if it weren’t possible to find a way to cover her essential responsibilities for 4-6 weeks until you get someone new in there. After all, if she were suddenly hospitalized for a month, you’d find a way to make it work.

If there’s no one on staff who can cover the essentials, look into getting a temp with an HR background to fill in while the position is open.

If for some reason you’re absolutely committed to starting the search before she’s gone — and again, I strongly recommend against it — you could (a) use a search firm so that applications aren’t coming into your office, and make sure the search firm knows they can’t identify your company in the ad, or (b) set up an anonymous email address for applications and do the screening yourself … but I think it’s fairly shady, and it doesn’t send a great message to other employees who may hear about it.

There’s another option too, although it depends on the employee’s character: Does she have enough integrity that you could simply be open with her about the fact that it’s not working out? In some cases, you can tell an employee that it’s not working out and mutually set a date for their last day that’s a month or two away, with the understanding that that will give them time to look for a job and you time to look for a replacement. Important caution: This only works with employees who you know won’t be so hostile or demoralized that you risk them poisoning the office environment or sabotaging the company in some way. And if you find that either one of those things is happening, you need to be prepared to have them leave immediately. But with the right person, in the right culture, this can work. (You can read about one of the times I did it here.) Listen to your gut on this though; if you have doubts, don’t do it.

Anyone else have other thoughts?

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I would look at a temp to perm option through an employment agency. They can certainly advertise without revealing the client company name, and usually they'd be happy to allow you to use their offices if you'd like to do interviews after they find some good candidates. It will cost you some money, but you won't have to advertise and you can do it all covertly as sort of a try before you buy.

  2. Joshua*

    I would definitely agree that it is better to let her go first. As a prospective employee, if I had options, I definitely wouldn't go with the company that was replacing somebody who didn't know they were getting fired.

    But hey, if the job is in the NJ/NY area, my father has a whole bunch of HR experience. :)

  3. Anonymous*

    As an applicant, I never applied to companies that had random anonymous emails (like: HRapplicant@gmail or whatever) because I thought it was shady. It also doesn't give applicants the opportunity to tailor their application to your position, so I would think you end up with a way lower quality of applications.

    I agree with AAM, A) Don't do that, just fire her and then replace B) If you really have to, go through an agency…. at least then people expect not to know who it is until they interview.

  4. Charles*

    From a job seeker's perspective:

    It wasn't in this tight job market so I might feel differently today. But, several years ago I went to a job interview. After I agreed to come in for an interview, got directions, etc., the interviewer told me to "dress casual, don't bring a briefcase, make sure you look like and act like you are here for a personal visit. Be sure to tell the receptionist that it is personal. We don't want anyone to know that we are interviewing to replace this supervisor."

    Wow, what a complete turn-off.

    Apparently, this supervisor was too "buddy-buddy" with several employees (such as letting them claim overtime when they left at their regular time, take longer lunch hours, clock them in when they were late, etc.)

    Although I certainly understood managements concerns for keeping the candidate search confidential – it all came across as unprofessional (bordering on the "sleazy" side). I really felt that there was a more professional way to handle this situation.

    I did wonder when they would tell her – when I showed up to take her job? Would she lash out at me? Would my car be "keyed" or something worse?

    No thanks! I would need that situation like a hole in the head.

    Even in this tight job market, candidates with options could be turned off by how you conduct the search.

  5. Class factotum*

    And if the job is in the Chicago area, I have a friend who used to be an HR director at Kraft but quit to do consulting once she had her second child.

  6. Anonymous*

    Sometimes it's a matter of needing documentation that delays letting someone go – maybe they're ona final warning and need to do that one last thing to finally be gone. I'm in HR for a retail company, and when I've gotten some "they won't last much longer" vibes I started creating files by geographic area of potential backups for some of our managers. Recently we did have a resignation from one of these people and I was able to immediately hit the ground running with several resumes to start with. Nothing wrong with a little replacement planning!

  7. Anonymous*

    I want to emphasize what AAM touched on, but I feel not enough:

    It is EXTREMELY demoralizing to staff to see management plotting an employee's demise behind their back for weeks beforehand. They will assume you are doing, or will do, the exact same thing to them. Nobody wants to work for a company like that.

  8. Anonymous*

    Frankly, I wouldn't want to work for a company with these kinds of business practices – but I bet this employeee is smart enough to know her time has come , is waiting it out and at least can walk away with severance or EU benefits

  9. Anonymous*

    I would not want to work for an organization that would replace someone this way. It's so shady, disrespectful, and just not right.

  10. Anonymous*

    I do agree with the author; the supervisor indicated that they are already doing much of the HR person's job now anyway, so it's probably not that big a leap to assume things could be managed temporarily if they went ahead and terminated the HR manager.

    Now – that being said – I do not feel that it is "sleazy" to recruit behind the HR manager's back, if they decide not to terminate immediately. There are a handful of positions in a company where the employee knows an above-average amount of highly sensitive company information – and this is for sure one of them (the controller is another good example.) If this person has that organic company history knowledge, it's not as easy as finding bodies to cover the work. Not suggesting that this means the person CAN'T be terminated before the replacement is in place; I'm just saying that sometimes this is easier said than done.

    Phyllis Neill

  11. Anonymous*

    I agree with the consensus that this practice is shady and doesn't reflect well on the company. I had an interview for one of these "cloak & dagger" positions about a month ago. They sent me a generic email about a position that I didn't even apply for. They refused to produce a position description beforehand. When I arrived at the company the manager proceeded to tell me how they are firing someone that has been there for 20 years and don't want her to know…blah blah blah. I was disgusted! I am relocating and need a job in my new area but I refuse to go into an environment like that. How disgusting to treat an employee like that after 20 years? To add insult to injury the firing seemed to be more of a "fit" thing than performance. So in essence this employee didn't do anything wrong but the management was replaced and she didn't "fit" well with the new management. If I was crazy enough to take the job I would've had major backlash from all the people that she used to work with it and if it didn't work out for me then they would've been plotting my demise next I suppose…

  12. Amy*

    I'm a little disappointed with some of the comments here. Since when is it "shady" to plan for someone's backup? It sounds like good business sense to me. The less time spent with a position vacant, the better it is for business. Would it be shady if it was called "succession planning"? What I find shady in all this is if the whole office knows that so-and-so is on their way out. That's nobody's business but the employee, the supervisor, and HR.

  13. Anonymous*

    I am the OP and I really appreciate both the advice from AAM and the comments.

    Without going into details, I am lateral to the person in question in the company but in a completely unrelated department – I got tapped to cover the slack because I had some previous HR experience.

    If it were my call it would be completely transparent and the person would be let go and we'd just conduct and above board search then while I covered for a little while longer. I do think that's the best, and easiest, way to go.

    I will say it's a good company with well intentioned people – just very low turnover so this doesn't come up that often so this isn't being handled as well as it could be.

    I appreciate the validation of the argument I have made that it will be hard to get credible people if we can't be transparent in the search.

  14. Anonymous*

    I actually wish my last boss would've been so kind as to have given me more than an hours notice they were going to fire me. It would have given me an opportunity to find a job, instead of being left with nothing and losing my house over the ordeal.

  15. Anonymous*

    I am the original OP again – just a follow up: I used the response and the comments in my suggestion to my boss that we would be scaring off great candidates by doing a search on the sly.

    I knew this was the way to go, but it was great to have validation as it's not my area of expertise.

    So it was decided we'll conduct an above board search once the position is vacant.

    Thanks again!

  16. Bobaloo*

    Will agree that firing the HR person first is best before starting a search; perhaps if one of her predecessors is still around and she did a good job, they’d agree to temporarily fill the role.

    What I’d like to see answered is how do you replace a non-HR employee – say, a reporter or an advertising representative – who is not performing well, but have to fill it quickly and the soon-to-be replaced may not necessarily know interviews are going on to hire his/her replacement. (That is, fire the bad employee on a Friday and then have the new employee begin on Monday.)

  17. Bobalosux*

    Bobaloo you should call around and do a sneaky search and then fire the person on Friday afternoon and start the other on Monday Of course you are throwing people under the bus and if they are reporters they have a public and can go elsewhere and if they are ad reps – everyone knows that BAD managers cannot keep even the best of sales people. Sure you can do it and think you’ll get away with firing Fri/hiring Monday – but all your best people will start looking around and leave-fast. Also your rep and your station’s will be in the toilet.

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