The words “you’re fired” spark a lot of emotion, but in some unfortunate circumstances, they’re necessary to say or hear.
In today’s episode, co-hosts Richard Lindner and Jeff Mask talk about best practices when it comes to delivering termination news. Most leaders have faced—or will face—that moment of truth when they have to let someone go. There’s a right way and a wrong way to fire people, Richard and Jeff believe, and they want to give you the script.
Listen in for some super practical advice on firing someone the right way and tips for preventing it in the first place.
They start off with the script right away, then work backward. Here’s what you say in 30 seconds or less. If you handle things right from the very beginning, this is how easy it can be to fire someone. If you’ve led with clarity, if everybody knew what was required/expected, there shouldn’t be surprises. Having a script memorized is key so you don’t freeze up under pressure.
The script: “Hey, Jeff. Thanks for joining me. Listen, the decision has been made that this will be your last day with the company. I’m sure this is not what you wanted to hear, but I’m also sure it’s not a total surprise. While I know this isn’t how you wanted it to end, I’m sure there is some relief as well. I have this HR person with me. They’re going to walk you through what’s next with benefits and any remaining pay and returning equipment and next steps. I’m sorry it turned out this way. It’s not what any of us hoped for. I wish you luck and let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
It may seem short, even cold, but when you hear the process leading up to it, you’ll see why this is all that’s needed.
Avoid Surprises by Creating Clarity from the Beginning
Once upon a time, Richard sent Jeff a text saying, “I’ve let people go in the past, and I want to do it better.” He had a situation that raised his spidey-sense, and he wanted to address it before it got bad. He says he had a rare moment of intuition, of realization before reaction. He and Jeff chatted on the phone and it went great.
He says that was the day he chose to lead differently, to avoid surprises, to create crystal clarity from the beginning so people know where they stand at any given moment for any given goal in any given role. Jeff shared what he had done, and Richard tweaked it to fit his business. They co-created a collaborative version of how to walk people through a plan, the Performance Improvement Flowchart.
You’ve hired someone and things are going well, until something goes wrong, a triggering event. When you make the decision to fire someone, there has typically been a series of things that went wrong. Did you brush those under the rug, or did you address them as they came up? Something going wrong is an opportunity to have an alignment conversation. (You don’t need a flowchart for immediately-terminable offenses like assault or harassment.)
Let’s say something happened. Who’s responsible? Let’s say Jeff is responsible. Richard leads Jeff, so he has a conversation with him and leads with curiosity. “Hey, Jeff. Let’s grab some time to chat. I want to talk about this. Is this something you feel you’re responsible for?” The goal is to leave the conversation with clarity about responsibilities. Richard ends with: “Do you have any questions? Do you need anything?”
What Happens After the Conversation
After the conversation, Richard sends Jeff a simple follow-up email so they have a document to refer to. The motive of the email is not bureaucracy (protecting against lawsuits); it’s clarity, getting on the same page. “Here’s what we talked about. So glad we’re on the same page.”
Richard is a big fan of the book, Extreme Ownership. If this is the first time, the leader can take the bulk of the responsibility. If the team member is responsible, show them in the handbook (or wherever) that they are. Did you know that? Were you clear? If they were, why didn’t they make it happen? Do they not have the tools/resources? What is the culprit?
The only fault you assume is the fault of the organization at this point. Say: “I know you. I know you wouldn’t maliciously do/not do this. So what do you need?” Don’t just tell yourself the worst story you can come up with and assume it to be true. Seek to understand, not to assign blame. Seek clarity. Maybe they share some personal information. You have an opportunity to care for them, show them grace.
So, in these accountability conversations:
- Lead with curiosity
- Lead with “this is likely my fault.”
- Ask the questions: “Do you know what success looks like? Do you have the resources you need?”
- Understand the human connection and what else is going on.
- Recap and follow-up email.
When the Offense is Recurring
Let’s assume we’ve had several of these conversations—correction over correction—and it has clearly become a pattern. Now you need a next-level conversation of accountability. You need to initiate a plan for alignment and growth (or performance improvement plan). The goal is not to fire someone at the end of 30 days. You want them to fix the problem.
Next comes radical candor. “I like you and respect you as a person, but things aren’t working out, and we need to take action and fix this. We need to take definitive action, and this is what it looks like.” Clearly set expectations. “You’re consistently showing up every single day 5-10 minutes late.” Or “your work is late.” Or “your actions are not lining up with core values. This is the core value you’re violating consistently and how you’re doing it.”
You make an ultimatum: “I need to see you walking into work 5 minutes early to make up for the broken trust with your team.” (“Never let your team down” is an actual core value of Richard’s team.) “You’re going to find a way to serve and be supportive to your team. Every day you’re going to check in with me 5 minutes before work, and if you’re ever running behind, you’re going to call me before it happens, not after. At any time you don’t do this, it’s equivalent to you resigning. We sign this, and we’re doing it together.”
You’re taking responsibility to do the hard work of changing patterns. If they can’t/won’t do it, you’re parting ways. The power is having core values you can pull back to, draw, from, coach to. You should hire, coach, and fire to your core values. It’s how you grow and maintain a great culture.
And We’re Back to the Initial 30-Second Conversation
All of this leads to the quick and simple termination conversation Richard shared at the beginning. “You said you were going to do something. You didn’t. It’s over. Not because I don’t like you, but because this is what the seat requires. This is about being true to our core values.”
If you’ve taken all the right steps leading up to it, this conversation won’t be awkward; it will be the way it’s done. As we truly care about people we lead, these conversations can be powerful and life-changing.
Richard and Jeff want to hear from YOU. Did something in today’s episode resonate with you? Anything you disagreed with? What advice can you tweak and implement in your workplace? How can you take action today? They’d love to hear your feedback on this episode. Email them here with your thoughts/questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
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