how to replace an employee who doesn’t know she’s being fired

A reader writes:

Do you have 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 we 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.

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Cat*

    My office did the latter recently – telling an employee she wasn’t working out, giving her a couple of months to find another job (which she did), and hiring a replacement for her in the meantime. I think it worked out as well as it could have for the employee; she did find another job, which seemed like a position she’d be great for, and it was minimally disruptive to us. But it did turn out impossible to keep it secret from everyone in the office – it was just too obvious that someone was being hired for that position even though the person holding it hadn’t announced she was leaving and a number of people figured it out. So that is one consideration.

    1. VictoriaHR*

      I think this is the best way, really. Yeah you’re going to get crappy performance from the outgoing employee in her last days, but you’re getting that anyway so.

    2. T3k*

      I wish this was the de facto way, but since everyone reacts differently those last few months could become a nightmare with the employee being let go.

      When I was laid off, I’d have loved for them to let me know, even a week beforehand, so I could have started job searching. Instead it was a “we’re laying you off today” an hour before I left for the day. I know I’d still have tried to do my work, even if I was feeling down about it. Instead they left me in a panic mode on how I was going to pay my bills and groceries (even though I appeared calm enough on hearing the news).

      1. Jennifer*

        Well, these days they’re afraid you’re going to lose your shit on them if you have more notice.

        1. Vicki*

          And yet, they don’t realize that employees are more angry when they’re shown the door _today_ and told “Leave and don;t come back.”

          1. Creag an Tuire*

            They might not care as such — showing you the door today means you can’t come back tomorrow with a gun, which is the operative concern.

            1. Charityb*

              How does that work? Someone who wants to shoot up the place can do that after being fired unless the building is secured. It makes more sense to do it to prevent sabotage.

      2. Anna*

        When I was laid off, most of us were given notice that some of us would be laid off, but they made us reinterview for our jobs. It was pretty stupid. So while I could start looking, I didn’t know if I needed to. Only one person was actually let go the day we found out there would be layoffs, but she had been skating so close to the edge for so long I think they were grateful for the opportunity to move her out as soon as they could.

    3. Ad Astra*

      That’s definitely the best way to handle a situation where it’s not working out because of something like cultural fit or a missing skill set. If you’re not worried about retaliation and her poor performance isn’t putting people in danger, why not give her a 6-week lead? It minimizes the impact on the employee and the company, and it leaves a good impression with the departing employee. People talk, and if I hear that a company fired someone in a patently unfair or unkind way, I’m not going to want to work for them.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I really agree. For the employees I have been able to transition out, it has *always* made things better on everyone and usually people are left with good feelings — especially those watching from the wings!

    4. Fish Microwaver*

      This would be the respectful and professional way to manage the situation and acknowledges that the outgoing employee is a human being who will have to find a new job and deal with the emotional fallout of being let go. The letter reads like the OP has not considered the outgoing employee in any human sense and is just pissed because she is inconvenienced.

    5. abby*

      We did this recently. We provided an employee with performance problems a month’s notice. We offered a generous severance package that was contingent on the employee performing certain specific and detailed work functions during the transition.

  2. BRR*

    For people in a situation like this remember hiring doesn’t have to be a long process. Candidates rarely need or want to move slower than an employer. You can also do it as rolling applications if possible where you just interview as appealing candidates come in versus collecting resumes, sorting, picking a few out for interviews etc.

  3. CK*

    We did another combination (not for HR) where (after many many disciplinary actions and remedial efforts) a manager needed to be let go. About a week before we had the official “talk”, we had her delegate her tasks to her team to help free up her plate and allow her to better focus (One of the many issues). I think her team was more aware of the situation than she was (part of the issue) so when we did let her go a short time later, she was shocked and the team just swooped in and most things were completely fine. We even found a great asset in one of our team members and are currently training them to become manager. We’re medium sized, so this wasn’t ideal for us either but it worked.

  4. Stranger than fiction*

    Brings to mind a staffing company in this area that’s called Company Confidential. I wonder if it’s named in part to do with this sort of scenario.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        That sounds about as appropriate as the “As secure as the Narrows Bridge” billboard for the Pacific National Bank, which was quickly removed when the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapsed (in 1940).

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Is that the one that was swinging like crazy and a guy and his dog got thrown off?

  5. Jen RO*

    Or you can just do what my company does, again and again. Say we have a team in Location A. They hire a bunch of juniors in Location B, then they tell the team in Location A that the juniors are new additions to the team and they need to be trained to be 100% productive. Then, 6 months later, when the juniors are all trained up, the team in Location A is told that their services are no longer needed…

        1. Jen RO*

          Yup, there have been multiple Location As (Western Europe or US) and multiple Location Bs (Eastern Europe and India). I’m in a Location B… but it’s still a shitty practice.

          The latest one is biting them in the butt – they decided they will lay someone off in Location A and hire two more people in Location B, they told all the people in Location B and promoted one of them to team lead of this new 2-person team… but the employee in Location A can’t be laid off just now because of some legislation hoops, so they’re offering him a severance package and hoping that he’ll take it… and in the mean time they can’t actually hire anyone because the position is not yet vacant… and the person being sort-of-but-not-really-laid-off is very much unwilling to share any of his knowledge, putting the new team-lead-but-not exactly in a crap position.

      1. Jen RO*

        Well, it sometimes is legitimate – we do have parallel teams in some products and there are no plans of layoffs (as far as I know), so it’s a bit difficult to tell on a case-by-case basis. I also think many people simply stay as long as possible for the severance package or because they know they will have ample time to search. (People being laid off in my company typically have at least 3 months notice, and it is up to 2 years for key roles.)

  6. Adonday Veeah*

    I was brought in to my current employer as a temp when the then-manager quit over the holidays. With minimal training I took over the HR reigns while they did a search. I ended up being the selected candidate, but hiring me on a temporary basis gave them the breathing room to do a thorough search to make sure they got the right person.

  7. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    The sneaky hire can be bad for morale.

    We had a situation where an employee was abruptly let go (much to that employee’s surprise), and the manager didn’t want to announce that the employee wasn’t leaving on her own terms. He made some vague announcement that the employee “had left” with no real explanation why (this was already sort of a bad thing for morale). But then when a new person started just days later (and mentioned that she’d been in the office on a weekend to interview) people put things together and basically started wondering about every stranger they saw in the office, and if that person was going to take their place when *they* got booted without warning.

    It goes without saying that that was a terrible place to work…

  8. NJ Anon*

    I agree with Allison. Let her go, get a temp and start interviewing. Especially for an HR position.

  9. SevenSixOne*

    I’d probably handle this by telling a trustworthy, knowledgeable employee (or two) about what’s going on, like:

    “Keep this confidential: We are letting Alex go on DATE because of NON-JUDGMENTAL FACTS. Even though we can’t bring people in to interview until Alex is gone because of REASONS, we expect to fill the position quickly. Can you fill in for Alex’s duties for DEFINED TIME PERIOD until the new HR person is hired?”

    It’s not ideal, but hopefully it wouldn’t be as morale-crushing as the sneaky weekend interviews Long Time Reader First Time Poster described… yikes!

    1. CK*

      My past company did this. Was horrible for morale. Those 3 employees who had the new duties were always walking on eggshells after that – for 2+ years – thinking they would be next, regardless of glowing performance reviews and verbal pats on the back. It’s all a learning process, but I think it depends so heavily on your culture

      1. SevenSixOne*

        Yeah, the employer still needs to really know they can trust all their employees and choose the temporary replacement Alex carefully– it’s definitely not something a badly-managed workplace should attempt!

        Something very similar happened at OldJob and it worked out as well as it could have; CurrentJob could probably do it successfully as long as they chose the trustworthy employee(s) carefully… but there’s no WAY one OldHellJob could have handled it well.

      2. Cat*

        I think in well run companies, the reaction for the fillers in is more often relief because they’re close enough to know there have been problems and are glad to see them addresses.

    2. neverjaunty*

      It’s pretty awful for Trustworthy Employee and not really fair to put them in that position.

    3. HR Pro*

      It’s very hard to have non-HR employees fill in for HR employees– for one thing, HR typically has 100% access to everyone’s employee files, including their salaries and medical information. It would be much better to hire a temp.

  10. Stranger than fiction*

    Kind of related question: do you think in general companies should announce when someone is no longer with the company? I know some places don’t like to because of morale issues, but at the same time it’s annoying for employees to be in the dark wondering why so and so hasn’t repondes to their email for two weeks (for example).

    1. Parfait*

      My company’s policy is only to tell people who’s work is directly affected. I think that sucks. It’s weird to have it gradually dawn on you that so-and-so has been gone for weeks and is never coming back. Even if you don’t work directly with them you’re still used to seeing them around.

  11. Diluted_TortoiseShell*

    I completely agree with Alison. As an applicant, one of the things I ask is why the current person in this role left. If I found out, they were still there and would be fired the moment I accepted I would be skeeved out and leave.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Absolutely. I always ask if I’d be replacing someone or are they adding a new resource.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Yeah. It’s creepy. I’d be like, if they weren’t working out, why didn’t you just fire them?

    3. Jenny*

      I’ve actually been in this situation, interviewing for a job where the person was going to be fired but didn’t know. It didn’t go anywhere, so I didn’t have to make a decision, but it definitely affected my impression of the business.

  12. Powers that Be*

    Cordelia was on PIP for four months when it became obvious no efforts were being made and a lot of “this is the manager’s (me) fault” as well as blaming co-workers for unfinished and inaccurate work. Any work that would have impacted the departments reputation or co-workers was reassigned. A job description was written for a similar role as hers but not her job title or rank. Buffy was hired above Cordelia on the org chart. Cordelia still reported to me as HR didn’t want the new hire sucked into the PIP process. Six months later in what can only be termed as a crash and burn PIP fail, Cordelia had her termination meeting. Cordelia’s position was never filled.

  13. Zak*

    I always find “it’s not working out” comments by employers pathetic. Firing somebody without notice is equivalent to employee leaving without giving notice. Bad. Employers are dicks and think this is OK . Karma – what goes around comes around. Expect the replacement to crap on you and existing staff to follow lead. They will secretly hate you and fear their jobs. When things are not working out how clearly is this pointed out to the person in question. Managers tend to skirt around issues and blame outside factors like inability to meet metrics, KPIs and other performance criteria as reason for disciplinaries and PIPs. In reality, reasons are personal and measures handed out on a discretionary basis. HR and management will have discussed the employee in question and considered their position from a legal standpoint. For employees PIPs are largely given when the company has already decided your fate. No one cares if you improve. It just needs to be documented. At this point your job search should be in full swing allowing you to keep dignity and jump ship first. A good fair manager, supervisor, team lead will spell things out to an employee in danger in simple terms. ‘We will likely terminate your contract on xx date unless’ and then say what needs to change or the result of disciplinary actions in action be stated clearly. These are strong words and will wake up even naive and delusional people who fail to understand the gravity. It gives an unhappy and otherwise unresponsive person some chance to take stock and decide whether they want to try and keep their position. What seems obvious to you as employer is not always so obvious to employee. Sneakily trying to replace somebody implies you have something to hide. If an employee is so bad, it may cause disruption to let them go. But the rest of the team will understand and not mind temporarily taking on extra work until you properly find a replacement. Just looking for anybody working in HR on the job market so you can fire problem employee quickly means you are likely to run into the same type of person again. A recipe for disaster.

    1. BakerStreet*

      I’ve also seen where good people were let go then four other people followed giving no notice to their employer. They didn’t want to be let go in the same way and decided it was best to get out and get on with it and weren’t interested in taking on a heavier work load when a good employee was fired for the benefit of a lousy one. Why this still happens I’ll never know.

      I really don’t understand how some companies are still in business when they pull this kind of crap. I’ve heard a manager whine about not being able to find anyone to do IT support work for $10/hr and he had to replace a former employee in a hurry because he didn’t give a two week notice. Turns out the manager bought a new luxury car and told that employee he didn’t deserve a raise. The nerve of some people! You can bet the whole town knew by nightfall. As a customer I chose not to listen to this whiny pig. I don’t know of anyone who can live off of $10/hr wages and for IT work you should be making 2 1/2 times as much.

  14. BakerStreet*

    I find that this works IF the company doing the firing/layoff isn’t rotten to the core with a system where people only promote their friends who have worked there as long as they have. There are some seriously toxic workplaces out there and I’ve seen and heard a lot about it lately. It’s the holidays and people have no jobs to go to. Pretty sad.

    It would be interesting to see how many companies with such management have to give zero notice or their tools/supplies walks off.

  15. Cyberspace Dreamer*

    I was interviewing for a job once and during the discussion it became clear that they were trying to get rid of someone. The manager openly talked about the problems they were having with their current employee. I played along for the rest of that discussion but I could barely hear him over the alarms going off in my conscience. Based on our discussion I would have probably gotten that job. But I am glad I did not go that way.

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