I’ve been “let go” twice and fired once. Each time, it has hurt. Even for someone whose self-esteem is bigger than mine, the experience proves wrenching. But, I’ve learned that it can be more humane; the end result holds the possibility for both parties to feel better about a pretty crummy endeavor.
First, of course, the conversation does not have to come as a surprise (as most of mine have been). If there has been no feedback as to performance or cultural fit or business pressures leading to the action, then the conversation needs to have some element of remorse or shame.
I’m sorry if this comes as a shock to you, but, we’re having problems with_____(the economy, cash flow in your unit…) and we need to take some action to change the status quo.
The employee being dismissed gets at least a small slice of perceived sympathy. And any sympathy or empathy can provide some salve on the wounds that get opened during this process.
For others, this tactic of mild subservience might not be required: one employee, Lou, that I had to discharge in the late 80’s, told me that he had wondered why I took so long. Shame on me. He knew that he just wasn’t doing the work despite my close coaching.
Fear, of course, is the biggest motivator in all of these discussions — or lack thereof: the discomfort of a bad fit is so pervasive that neither party wants to bring it up. The fear, though, doesn’t have to govern the process. Courage and enhanced skills can go a long way.
OK, back to tactics: follow the old rules of 1) tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; 2) tell ’em, and; 3) tell ’em what you told ’em. So, there is the agenda: “we need to talk about something serious…something that’s quite uncomfortable for me..” At this point, let everyone breathe: a big deep breath as you move on to Step 2.
“I think it’s been clear that we’re having some problems in the relationship…” (avoiding the word “you” makes the other party less likely to become defensive). “Perhaps we haven’t been clear enough in our articulation of what we’ve been expecting or where we’ve been disappointed, but….we don’t think this is going to work out…” Yes, it’s words; we’re talking about minimizing the “sting;” these are tactics that soften what is, ultimately, perceived to be a hammer blow to one’s ego.
The tactic of taking the possibility of responsibility for the problem in the “relationship” provides a way for the worker to hold on to some self-esteem, to not feel totally blamed — which he or she is likely to do anyway — for the deterioration of events. And for you, the terminator as it were, to not feel like Satan as you go back to your office, in whatever job security that you possess.
Right now, the person being spoken to has so much adrenaline running and fantasies occuping what little RAM he’s got in his brain — what do I tell my wife…where am I going to find another job…was I that bad??? — that he’s not likely to hear anything else. Try anyway. Find something, as specific as possible, that you found exemplary in his performance: “I really liked the way you were calm in the face of crises like when your computer crashes in the middle of a project…” Don’t make it up: be genuine.
Step 3: Keep trying to penetrate the fog of the adrenaline and personal terror: find something very specific that was needed that you didn’t get. “We really needed someone who could work lots of overtime and…your family situation just doesn’t allow that…”
Lastly, Step #4: Acknowledge the situation’s crumminess and validate: “I know you really tried to make this work; I’m sorry.” Can this overcome the abysmal sense of rejection that the person is going to feel? No, but it can help and, if you can, why not do it? And, of course, apologize a great deal: “I’m really sorry about this. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Yes, this is, in reality, a five minute conversation. And, it is discomforting to both parties. So, the exercise I propose to be taken is just a way to reduce the pain that is inevitable.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid this nasty conversation is to take the time up front to make the fit successful: 1) identify the skills and behaviors needed to be successful in the job; 2) provide more than sufficient information to the hiree so that s/he knows what’s expected to be effective; 3) provide appropriate and necessary resources (training, office space, culture, tools, etc.), and; 4) create reward systems that reinforce the desired behaviors and provide feedback on a timely basis (not once a year, duh).
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