How to Fire Someone


by Marilyn McLeod

published in "Heart of a Woman in Business: Stories, Strategies and Skills for Business Success" with Sheryl L. Roush

First, I’m not an expert in employment law, so consult your legal and HR people for that side of your strategy. 

Is firing someone easy?  Oprah is someone I admire, and she said the first time she had to fire someone it took two hours and the person finally had to ask, “Does that mean I’m fired?!”

My first experience was different.  I was nineteen and an office manager.  I knew someone I had not hired was doing a terrible job.  She had a difficult time understanding even the simplest instructions.  She was sweet, but highly ineffective, and after working with her for a reasonable time I had a respectful, cordial meeting with her to tell her it wasn’t working out and that I was letting her go.

My move made perfect sense from a functional perspective.  At nineteen I wasn’t aware of a larger political environment.  The president’s secretary took me aside and told me the woman had been brought in by the president of our organization, and that this was a significant factor.   After I sweated it out for a couple of days, the woman I’d fired stopped by the office to show us her new engagement ring, and to tell us she didn’t have to work anymore.  So everyone was happy.

What happens to us when we think about firing someone?  It probably brings up old issues.  We carry the results of our past conditioning about wanting to please everyone, wanting someone else to take responsibility for important decisions, or just plain not having any role models to help us navigate new human relationship waters.

This all plays into our ability to see clearly what we need, and affects our ability to effectively and respectfully handle new human interactions.

We’ve all been on both sides of ‘ending a relationship’.  How comfortable are we initiating change?   How do we like to be treated when we’re on the receiving end of a request for change?

If we want to cancel a magazine subscription, we’re very clear about what to do.  We call our existing provider and make a clear request, “I want to cancel my subscription,” or we return the invoice with a “please cancel” note instead of our payment.  If we don’t make our wishes crystal clear, nothing will change.

If we want to end a romantic relationship, more of our past conditioning comes into play.  We’ve all probably had more experience ending romantic relationships than firing employees, so let’s look at how we’ve handled those situations.

The most painful breakups for me have been the ones where the guy didn’t tell me what he needed because he ‘didn’t want to hurt me’.  As if I couldn’t tell there was a change happening between us.  In a work setting, you would probably see a change in the employee’s dedication to the quality of their work, their attendance record, or their attitude toward you or others.

One guy stopped returning phone calls, started flirting with other women, broke our dates and was too busy to get together with me.   In a work setting, this might look like employee theft, political ill will, teams not functioning because one is undermining another’s efforts.  Why treat others disrespectfully?  Why not create a safe environment where people can just ask for what they want, and teach communication methods that help people express what they need, and helps others listen?

The breakup I learned the most from involved a triangle.  He and I had been dating awhile, and suddenly I had a feeling something had changed between us.  I asked him about this, and he kept telling me it was my problem.  But things just didn’t feel right.  I felt a painful gap in our connection.  I was frustrated with conflicting messages and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to get to the truth.

I happened to know the woman he was involved with before me, and I had respect for her, so I bravely gave her a call.  She was wonderful.  She told me that the two of them had gotten back together.  Then she asked me how I was.  She was sincerely interested in my wellbeing, and kept asking and being attentive to my feelings and needs until I felt supported and connected again.

So I ended up feeling betrayed by the man who professed to care so much about me, and totally supported by the ‘other woman’.  Who would I choose to be my friend in the future?  The one who told me the truth and then was there to help me heal.

I learned not to assume someone was my enemy.  I learned that hearing the truth honestly allowed me to stay connected, and that being treated with respect and being included in the conversation were more important to me than getting my way.  The truth allowed me to honestly understand the landscape I was in, so I had more power to chart a meaningful future course of my own.

In a work setting, this might look like not assuming the person you find the most threatening is actually someone to fight with or ignore.  If you get to know them, you may find many shared ideas or motivations.  Collaborations between people with diverse viewpoints can be very powerful and effective.  Maybe your strategy of ‘getting rid of the irritant’ will also deprive you of some important ideas that could lead to innovations in your industry.

You know it’s time for you as the leader to step in and do something about an employee that’s not working out.  This isn’t your favorite thing.  Where do you start?

I say first take your time to get real clear with yourself.  What is it that you really need and want from that person or role right now?  Try to go a little deeper with your own understanding of yourself, because that will help you get what you need in the process.   Make a list of specific behaviors so the person knows exactly what they’re doing right, and where things aren’t going so well from your perspective.

Then be willing to learn something new from this offending employee you’re probably pretty frustrated with by now.  Acknowledge your feelings to yourself and leave them and your judgments at the door so you can have an honest conversation with this employee.

Listen with sincere interest as the other person (if they feel safe enough with you), reveals what’s going on for them.  If the words you hear push your buttons, take a deep breath and remember it’s not about you; they’re just expressing their needs in the best way their skills allow.  They’re just talking about themselves.  If you’re interested in developing the person, why not be interested in what’s unique about this person? 

Then decide together your next step.   Consider being creative.  You’re the captain steering the boat; allow them to inform your decision because respect and trust can build long-term commitment and job satisfaction, or perhaps an advocate if leaving is the best course.

Do we really need more enemies in our lives?  I prefer to create more friends.

Marilyn McLeod
Leadership Coach


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