Being “Let Go” – Part III: The Manager’s Perspective

It is a fact of commerce in the 21st Century that if you are a manager, you are probably going to need to let some people go at some point.  It’s not pleasant and is the least enviable part of your job (hopefully!)  There are two ways this can come about – one, you fire them, or two you let them go because your company imposes some kind of reduction in force, layoff, downsizing, streamlining, skill realignment etc. (it gets justified in so many ways!)  However unpleasant, this is something that you, as a manager, need to be prepared to do.  The way you handle yourself at the time you tell someone it’s time to move on makes a big difference to them.  I’m not suggesting it will make you lifelong friends, but showing them courtesy and respect – and not making it about how bad you feel! – will go a long way.


You’re Fired!

First, let’s address if you have to fire someone.  To my mind, this is different than being let go, because the employee has brought it on him/her self, and (I hope!) you have genuinely afforded them every opportunity to improve and so avoid this moment.  As a good manager, you should want to remove from your team any employee that isn’t performing, because it affects the whole team.  If your solid performers see someone “getting away” with doing less, then that sets a low standard for the whole team.  It's unfair.  It also tells them you don’t care, or perhaps that you are ineffective – both are a poor reflection on you as a leader and manager.  Plus, if your team isn’t getting the results it could do, then your superiors will hold you accountable – and you could get fired!  Imagine the reverse - what if everyone on your team were performing at the rate of your best performers!  That would make the whole team feel great, look better and of course make you look better as their leader!  That should be your goal – a high performing team, which means you have standards and if people fall below them, you take action as a responsible leader.   It doesn’t make firing someone easier but it does mean you have a logical, rational, professional framework within which to be doing it – ultimately for the greater good of the wider workforce. You shouldn't be held hostage by poor workers.

Now – before you get to thinking I want you to start firing people for the sake of it -- no, that's the opposite of what I'm saying.  Any manager that does this indiscriminately or can let someone go and not feel bad about it deserves to be let go themselves.  The goal should be to help your employees attain the standards you need, and moving them on should really be a last resort having afforded them every opportunity.  Your goal should be to help under-performers become acceptable performers, then improve from there.  Firing people and having to replace them is wasteful of time and money – plus it creates a disturbance in the workforce!


The first step is to establish some performance standards - this means knowing what you expect out of your employees for each position and each grade or level.  Write them down.  Agree them with your HR lead, if you have one.  If you can state what acceptable performance is, it means you can make sure your team members know your expectations upfront.  

You know when someone isn't pulling their weight, so having expectations clearly stated allows you to identify the shortfall in a tangible way.  Then you have a serious, private conversation with that individual, make it clear what you want to talk about and discuss the under-performance.  Make sure you prepare for this meeting and again, consult your HR person if you have one.

  • Don’t accuse. 

  • Ask questions.

  • Does the employee agree?  You may learn some things! 

  • Are there are reasons why performance may be below expectation? 

  • Maybe the process is broken.  Maybe your information is wrong! 

Describe the improvements you need to see and agree to meet to discuss again after a short time period – maybe a couple of weeks or a month.  Your goal should be to retain this person if at all possible and only fire them if they cannot improve having been afforded every opportunity to do so by you.


The Exit Meeting

Whatever the circumstances that one or more people will be leaving, let’s think about what happens when you actually have to tell someone.  I always believe that the direct supervisor should be the one to let a person go, where possible.  As I said earlier, this isn’t easy and managers need to know what this feels like so they only recommend this as a last resort.  See this movie clip from “Up In The Air”

You must prepare for this meeting.  You should be working with your HR lead, if you have one or consulting with your boss or legal adviser before having this meeting.  They will help you ensure that all of the legal, financial and logistical obligations you have to your employee have been met – e.g. you have agreed what you will say (and what you won’t esp. in the event of a corporate action), the questions you might get asked, that the right paperwork has been prepared (health benefits, 401Ks, etc), any checks that might be due, plans to recover company property, keys, badges, a plan for how you will help the person leave after you have told them, scenarios in the event the person turns violent, or collapses etc. – you need to have thought this through as much as you can. 

Remember this is your meeting, not HR’s; the message will come from you and you need to be calm, professional, humble and above all, human

  • Don’t talk too much, say what you need to.

  • Don’t waffle.

  • Never say how hard this is on you (it is irrelevant and why should they care?).

  • Be open to questions and answer them briefly, don’t lecture. 

  • Do not get into arguments whatever the other person may say to you. 

  • Be prepared for a range of emotions, but remain calm yourself at all times.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not easy, nor should it be.  The more prepared you are, the more you have thought through what to say and scenarios, the better it will be for the person (or people) you are letting go. And you.

Now help the person to leave.  Remain calm with them, follow your company protocol on letting them collect their things.  Always ask them to go now, however.  No matter who they are or how much you trust them, to have them in the workplace for any length of time after you have let them go is not appropriate; it’s not fair to them or to the employees who remain.  Avoid creating a situation that could turn bad.


A Disturbance in the Workforce

Where you have to let people go due to an action of the company, you need to be prepared not only to handle the process, but also what you’re going to do afterwards.  Your team will be smaller, you’ll have morale issues for a while and perhaps, you’ll have some of those same feelings as your employees.  It is important not just to think about those you are letting go, but those who will remain; they’ll feel bad about this too and here you have an opportunity to be a real leader – to help your team through a period of crisis.   With the exit complete, now be ready for the employees who remain. 


In the case of a firing, I always think it best to say very little.  Never discuss why someone was fired;

  • If an employee asks, tell them it is a private matter between the company and the individual, and that you’ll hope they understand the company respects the privacy of its employees.   This is a tough position, but stick to it.

  • Reassure anyone who asks that their former colleague was treated with care and respect, and that you’re sorry to see them go. 

  • Never gloat or bad-mouth the affected person

You will be relieved its over but no-one is going to think you a hero or the tough guy.  Remember that employees will assume you will treat them the way you are treating the exited employee.  If you bad-mouth them, they’ll assume you’ll do the same to them the moment they are gone.  If you show respect and are sorry it came to this, you’re showing that you’re human.


In the case of many people being let go at once, such as a company 'action' or RIF (reduction in force), follow corporate protocol.  Some companies will issue internal emails with an official explanation, some will hold town halls, and others may not want anything in writing and ask managers to relay key messages in departmental meetings.  Whatever the company message, remember to be human – it’s always a loss when people are let go.  Their lives that have just been shattered.  This morning’s colleagues and teammates are now unemployed.  This is a great opportunity to be a leader, so once the official messaging is done, sit with your team and discuss how you want them to regroup now. 

  • Don’t dwell on the action – don’t suppress commentary, but equally move the conversation to what we all can do now. 

  • Seek ideas and encourage people to see that they still have a job and that the team still has a job to do. 

  • You have a setback but together you can rise above it.  

I find that I remember the people that helped me through worrying or stressful times – so be there for your people.  Not to pander, but to focus.  Your focus will help them reengage and get back to work.


It's Over

I hope these three blogs have been useful, Please add comments about your experiences or if you have any questions about this subject.  My thoughts are based on my experiences on both sides of this.

In conclusion, you should be prepared for the day that you will be let go from your job.  It won’t be easy but the more you have thought this through, the better you and your loved ones will cope.  You will be OK.

If you’re a manager, be prepared that one day you may have to terminate someone’s employment.  Being human – firm but fair – is always the best policy.  Remember the impact this will have not only on the person (or people) being let go, but also on those who remain.  You need to demonstrate leadership and help the team focus on the positive -- what comes next.

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