title>Overcoming The Fear of Firing - Articles - Andrew Schwartz - ReadySetPresent

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Overcoming The Fear of Firing

"It was obvious that this employee could not relate well to clients. But I could not bring myself to fire him.... and while I wavered, things only got worse for everyone in the department."

Having to fire someone is one of the most difficult actions any manager or executive may have to take. It is an action that many manager's find endless excuses to avoid, as did the executive quoted above. Yet, in certain cases it is unavoidable. Firing is a managerial art that many otherwise successful supervisor's neglect to develop.

When Is Firing Appropriate?: Most people take pride in and care about their job responsibilities. There are some people, however, whose pride in their job is, unfortunately, unwarranted. Others, exist who don't think pride enters into it -- that "a job's a job". Still others are of the belief that they deserve a job because of their circumstances, or their longevity, not necessarily because they are working up to standard. Some people genuinely need a job, but cannot do the quality of work necessary to sustain their position. When the needs of an individual group member come into serious conflict with the needs of the group, the manager must place higher priority on the well-being of the group. The manager must look beyond the individual needs to the survival of the organization.

These are four areas where the performance of employees most frequently detracts from the performance of the organization to the extent that firing is necessary. Listed in order of frequency, they are:

  1. Poor work habits Chronic lateness and absenteeism; shirking of job responsibilities; sloppy, careless work. One manager reported firing a supervisor who sat and shouted across the room instead of walking over to talk to the employees working under him. He was often found sleeping on his desk rather than watching the assembly line.
  2. Sub-par job performance Inability to satisfactorily perform job responsibilities;inability to develop necessary skills. Specific problems cited include "lack of supervisory skills," "lack of empathy and patience," "inability to plan," or "inability to keep up with others in the same job category/job description."
  3. Unacceptable behavior Behavior which is detrimental to the organization, clients, or employees. In supervisors, these behaviors relate to inappropriate disciplining of an employee such as "striking an employee," "verbally abusing an employee." Unacceptable behavior for employees involves disrupting the organization by "refusing to cooperate with other employees," or by "inciting disharmony and negativism among co-workers."
  4. Policy violations Unwillingness to conform to organizational policies and philosophies including "stealing property," "violating the confidentiality of the organization," "refusal to adapt to the methods used to accomplish work," and "coming to work intoxicated."

Potential Problems: The process of firing an employee is never a pleasant one. During the period when the manager is weighing the decision and waiting to announce it, he or she typically experiences considerable anxiety. The conference at which the employee is notified of the decision is often loaded with tension and tears or anger and ill-will. Sometimes if the employee reacts poorly to the action, the manager may experience guilt.

Occasionally, more serious problems occur. When employees believe themselves being fired unjustly, they may seek to rally support among the other employees and managers. This can lead to a period of internal conflict and leave a residue of hard feelings.

When there is a level of authority above the person who did the firing, such as a principal owner/executive, a board of directors, or a regional director, the terminated employee occasionally will appeal the decision. This appeal may operate through normal channels such as a grievance procedure, or it may take a more personal direction. In one instance, an employee sent letters to every board member, claiming foul play by the manager and demanding immediate reinstatement. In another instance, the spouse of a terminated employee appeared at the door of the company's owner threatening a law suit. A confrontation may also occur if the terminated employee is denied unemployment benefits and appeals this ruling. In many states an employee who is fired may have their claim for unemployment benefits denied if fired for gross misconduct or for misdeeds directed against the employer. The information for making this decision comes from the former employer. If the former employee appeals a decision, the director may then be required to attend a hearing. One executive director who attended such a hearing found it very unpleasant "to be discussing the employee's poor work record in front of them, their family, and the hearing officer."

In some cases the repercussions are even more unpleasant. Instances exist of angry or obscene phone calls at home from the terminated worker for weeks after the firing, complete with physical threats. Former employees have also been known to dedicate themselves to spreading vicious rumors about the organization and the executive director in the community.

Although such negative outcomes do occur when the firing process misfires, they need not be the inevitable consequence. Almost 85% of the time, the positive results of firing an unsatisfactory employee far outweigh the negative ones. In most cases the employee morale eventually, if not immediately, improves.

  1. Laying the Groundwork: The best method for avoiding the negative consequences of the firing process involve laying the groundwork, with actions that must be taken long before the final decision to fire is made.
  2. Establish Guidelines: All personnel working in an organization must know, from the day they are hired, what actions or behaviors on their part can result in their being fired.These policies must be in writing, and they must be given to all employees or posted in a conspicuous place. Employees have a right to know these ground rules. Once they know them, their responsibility to abide by them must not be subject to question at a termination.

Most organizations have two categories of offenses in their policies. One category is for flagrant actions which are cause for immediate termination. Cited as examples of such offenses were theft of company property, gross negligence, and being intoxicated on the job.

The second category comprises all other offenses for which some prior notification to the employee is required. In these cases, there is a slow but steady accrual of chronic problems or offenses, no single one enough to cause a termination, but taken together making the decision unavoidable.

  1. Review Performance Periodically

    If an employee's work habits or performance have degenerated to the point where a termination is warranted, it may no longer be possible for them to radically alter their behavior. An executive director genuinely concerned with the welfare of individual employees and wishing to help them avoid termination must institute periodic performance reviews for all employees. Poor habits and substandard work must be brought to the employee's attention before it gets out of hand. In these reviews the manager must help the employee set goals for improvement as well as offer whatever support the organization can muster. Progress toward meeting the goals must then be closely monitored.

  2. Give Adequate Warning

    Nearly every manager and director would agree that there must be "no surprises." As soon as it becomes apparent to them that an employee may need to be fired, that employee must be warned that such and action is being considered. This warning must be given in a private conference between the manager, personnel officer (sometimes the executive director) and the employee. During this conference the employee must be told:

    1. the specific organizational policies or standards the employee is violating or failing to adhere to;
    2. objective examples or anecdotes which demonstrate this claim;
    3. the specific changes required of the employee to avoid being fired;
    4. how the employee's effort to make these changes will be monitored;
    5. the deadline for the final evaluation.

    Some organizations have a formal two or three step notification process. In one organization the manager gives a preliminary verbal warning, an initial written warning, and a final written warning before issuing a notification of termination. However, if an organization has an effective performance review process, the early warning needed to give the employee a fair opportunity to improve must be coming up in the periodic reviews.

    Since warning conferences can become quite emotional, key messages sometimes fail to get communicated. Sometimes managers and directors try too hard to cushion the blow by sugarcoating the warning. In one instance a manager went to such lengths emphasizing the employee's strong points in addition to the problem areas that the employee left the meeting unaware that he was close to being fired. A second message is often necessary clearly outlining the specific steps the employee needs to take to meet the manager's expectations. To avoid miscommunication, have the employee state his interpretation of the manager's message to be sure he has an accurate understanding of it.

  3. Establish a Grievance Procedure

    If at all possible, employees must have some means of appealing major personnel actions such as a firing. This may consist of a hearing before an owner, an executive director, a personnel committee, or a special grievance panel. Having such a procedure established in advance gives an aggrieved employee a clear recourse and helps prevent unnecessary parties from becoming involved in the dispute.

  4. Keep Written Records

    "Document! Document! Document!" Keep a record of periodic performance reviews, incidents of unsatisfactory performance, conferences where warnings are administered or terminations are announced. Issue warnings and terminations in writing as well as verbally. When dealing with a particularly unstable or vindictive employee, request that the employee sign a written summary of a warning or termination conference to attest to the fact that the summary is accurate (not that they necessarily agree with it). Documentation such as this serves two purposes. First, it insures that the message has been conveyed. All people's memories of conversations are distorted by emotions and expectations. So it is quite likely that an employee coming out of an emotional warning conference will have a faulty memory of the specifics, unless the memory is aided by a written summary.

    Second, documentation provides insurance for post-termination confrontations. If the employee challenges a firing, either before an owner, a board, or an unemployment claims officer, claiming that adequate warning was not given or that the firing was groundless, a written record of the entire process must provide sufficient evidence to counter these claims.

  5. Keep Employees Informed

    Another means of avoiding potential confrontation is for the manager is to keep his boss up-to-date on the situation. For a manager who is also the owner of the business, of course, there is no one else to turn to. However, if the executive director answers to a board, owner, or sponsoring group, the appropriate party must be consulted as soon as the possibility of a termination arises. The privacy of the employee must be respected, so prior consultations need to be made in confidence.

    One executive director kept the board's chairperson advised, rather than discussing the situation with the full board. When the terminated employee appealed to the board, the chairperson was able to verify the director's account of the process.

  6. Completing the Process

    Once the termination process is set in motion, it becomes necessary to minimize the negative effects of the final act on the organization and all parties concerned.

  7. Make the Decision Objectively

    It is, of course, impossible to remove all emotion from a termination decision. How you feel about the person, how the decision will affect the individual and his family, and how it will affect the employees all will consciously or unconsciously influence the decision. The manager should not try to deny these emotions but must keep them in perspective so that they will not lead to a decision that all will regret.

    One way to keep issues in perspective is to avoid making a termination decision while under stress or in a crisis. When an employee's half hour late arrival causes a supervisor to miss a meeting, the manager may in anger be tempted to fire that employee on the spot. Weighing the incident later in a calmer mood, the manager may realize that this was one of the the few times that employee had ever been late and that to fire her would be seriously overreacting.

    Another technique for maintaining perspective is to list all the specific pieces of evidence which prove the employee is violating company policies or failing to perform his work responsibilities. Then assess whether this list is serious enough to justify termination

    If the evidence warrants termination, the manager, in conjunction with his/her immediate supervisor, must weigh the other negative consequences of the termination -- i.e. the impact on co-workers, the overall department, the organization, and the clients -- to determine if the firing can be handled in such a way as to ameliorate the consequences. For example: Could the employee be moved into a less demanding job in the organization? Could the terms of the firing be stated in such a way that the employee can receive unemployment? Could the employee be given an opportunity to save face by resigning first?

    Another consideration at this point is setting the employee's last work day. In general it is in everyone's best interest for the employee to leave immediately. Once the employee is fired he may find it embarrassing to continue working. In other cases an embittered person may make life miserable for the employees or the supervisor by stirring up trouble in the final days. In such circumstances it may be best to pay the employee severance pay for one or two weeks rather than keeping her on the job. In other cases where feelings are less damaged, it may be helpful to allow the employee to stay on until he can find another job.

  8. Notifying the Employee Directly

    Once the termination decision has been made, the employee must be told as soon as possible in a private conference. Preferably, this must occur at the end of the day to protect the employee from confronting the other team members when leaving. Without prolonging the agony by chit-chatting about the weather, the supervisor needs to tell the employee of the decision in clear and simple terms. If this meeting has been properly prepared for, the decision must not be unexpected. Any sugarcoating or beating around the bush will only confuse the issue. The manager must state the specific reasons for the termination. There may be other unsatisfactory aspects of the employee's performance, such as sloppy dress, bad attitude or poor relations with clients; but if these are not the reasons for which the employee is being fired, they must not be mentioned in this conference. The personnel manager must also be prepared to answer all the employee's contractual questions, such as what the appeal process is, when the last day will be, whether severance pay and unused vacation time will be granted, and whether the manager and/or director will write a job recommendation for the employee in the future. All important points must, of course, be included in a termination letter given to the employee during the conference.

    In certain circumstances the organization may be inclined to offer the employee help in applying for benefits or in finding a new job. This fact must be stated. But the organization must not press to offer help unless the employee specifically asks for it.

  9. Announce the Action Honestly

    The other employees may have an understandable interest in the action. If they are not informed, eventually the rumor mill will begin generating distorted versions of what happened. Such rumors can have a negative impact on employee morale and manager-employee relations. Therefore, the employees must be informed about the termination as honestly and as soon as possible without violating the former employee's privacy by revealing details.

    If the employee was popular among co-workers, they may find fault with the decision. But the manager must not attempt to regain their approval by revealing confidential information or by reversing the decision. More likely than not, however, team members will be more relieved than angered by the decision.