By Jack and Suzy Welch You recently wrote a column about hiring the right way. Can you follow up with the same detail on firing? I think I was fired in the wrong way. — Anonymous, Balch Springs, Tex.
We wouldn't be surprised, since that happens far more often than not. In fact, letting people go in a way that doesn't engender a lot of bitterness is rare in business. It requires an entirely unnatural act for managers: seeing the person being fired through the whole agonizing process. Half of firing right is not running away after you say goodbye. The other half is never letting the firing be a surprise in the first place.
Now we're not talking about firing for integrity violations. When that happens, make sure everyone knows why you're kicking the person out—a teaching moment—and get on with business. No, we're talking about letting someone go for underperformance, a much more fraught event for one major reason. In such cases, the person doing the job and the person getting the job done to him are almost always on clashing emotional life cycles.
Take the case of Bob, a typical overworked manager who wants minimal angst in his organization, and Richard, a nice subordinate who has been vaguely underperforming for a few years. Eventually, Richard makes enough mistakes that Bob wants him to go. The decision gnaws at Bob, though, and for weeks he wrestles with his emotions. He agonizes to his wife, "Richard is going to freak out. He's so clueless—and his daughter just started college." Meanwhile, Richard continues to plod away. He may sense Bob's awkwardness but assumes it's nothing personal. After all, he reassures himself, his last performance review had no red flags; it gave him a 3% raise and some O.K. comments.
Finally, Richard really blows a project, and Bob has had it. He calls him in and lets loose. "People have been carrying your load for too long, and no one can take it anymore," he says. "You have to go. I'm sorry." Richard sits there like he's been sucker-punched. Bob mistakes the silence as acceptance and hastily ends the meeting. Big mistake. Within 24 hours, Richard starts feeling anger and hostility. No one ever told him he was screwing up! His firing, he convinces himself, is an outrage. While Richard is getting madder by the minute, Bob is feeling better. "I finally did it," he tells his wife. "What a relief! I can't wait to find someone new." He asks HR to put together a decent severance package for Richard, gives him two weeks to "settle things up," and then works very hard not to bump into him in the hallway.
IS IT A SURPRISE, THEN, when Richard files a lawsuit against the company or becomes a whistle-blower about a perceived wrongdoing? Is it any wonder that when Richard is finally hired by a customer, that company suddenly doesn't want to do business with Bob anymore?
Of course not. And yet, this scenario—the firing life cycle—happens again and again in business. As different emotions play out, managers feel relief while "victims" feel everything but, creating a personal and organizational car wreck.
Which brings us back to what managers must do. Let's start with preventing the surprise goodbye, which can be accomplished with rigorous and candid performance evaluations, twice a year at the minimum. All employees must always know where they stand, especially if it is close to the exit. Yes, it can be difficult to deliver the news that someone is screwing up. And yet those are the reviews you just cannot avoid. Force yourself to schedule them. And once you're sitting across the table from your own Richard, resist the temptation to sugarcoat hard messages. You're helping no one, least of all the employee who's being lulled into a false sense of security.
With the surprise taken out of goodbye, the only other part about firing right is preserving the dignity of the person being dismissed. Start by giving the departing employee months—not weeks—to find a place where his or her skills are a better match, and in that period fight any appearance of abandonment. Yes, you may feel as if you've already spent enough time on the underperforming employee; in fact, you need to spend a bit more. Bob thought his job was done when he fired Richard. It had just begun. Indeed, a good firing means you become a coach and adviser. You take the employee for periodic lunches and check in with him more often than that. You suggest new career directions or possible companies to join. In every way, you help make the exit as devoid of humiliation as possible.
Look, firing is the worst part of business for everyone involved. It sounds like it was painful for you—and not nearly painful enough for your manager.
Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm