Do You Know How to Fire Someone? Really?

By Chris Lott | Management | 10498 Views | 9 Comments    

One of my top sales people had been missing for a couple of days and hadn’t called in sick. I called his home and cell with no luck. Around the third day his dad called and wanted to talk to me. This was kind of odd but I accepted and we met. He told me his son had prostate cancer and didn’t want anyone to know. Of course I was concerned and advised him to have his son take all the time off needed just keep in touch periodically. He agreed. Unfortunately, about two weeks later, I found out he was working for our competition. Maybe it was time to fire someone?


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He lied, had his dad lie, and now I’m not a happy camper. I jump in my car and confront him at his “new” place of employment. As you can imagine he was completely surprised and embarrassed. I told him “obviously it’s not working out with us… let’s jump in the car and pack your stuff.” Going on… “I wish the best for you but it would have been nice if you hadn’t used your dad like that. I’m sure you had your reasons.” We parted “friends” and that was the end of it.

My General Manager was furious that I had been so congenial to this guy. I had always made it a policy to part on as friendly terms as possible when letting someone go. Two weeks later the same GM comes into my office literally ashen faced. I asked what’s wrong. He pushed a newspaper across my desk with a headline article including this ex-sales person’s name.

He had gone into a local bar… pulled out a shotgun and shot and killed seven people including himself. No one knew why. Then my GM commented “Just think if you had fired him like I wanted to?”

It always amazes me how many managers don’t take this serious. A friend of mine would fire someone by drawing the outline of a building with stick figures in the building and one out. He would ask “which one of these figures do you think you are?” In telling this tale he would laugh and laugh about how devastated these employees would look. Sad. Some trash and demean employees as they let them go. Why?

“You’re fired!” No other words can so easily and succinctly reduce a confident, self-assured executive to an insecure, groveling shred of his former self.” -Frank P. Louchheim

5 Suggestions on how to fire someone:

  1. First and foremost, firing an employee DOES NOT need to be completely negative.
  2. Just because they aren’t working out for you doesn’t mean they can’t be successful somewhere else. Tell them that.
  3. Offer your services and advice on where they could go to find a new job. Let them know you are available to talk (within reason of course).
  4. Be very clear about why they are being terminated. Reduction in force, performance low, serious personality conflict, etc. Don’t make something up. It will come back to haunt you.
  5. When another employer calls for a reference always remember how you would want your ex-boss to talk about you. I am not saying lie but emphasize the good points. All employees have good points.

I once had an ex-employee tell me that “I would rather be fired by you than anyone”. I’m not sure I want to be famous for that but you get the picture. Bottom line is treat these folks like you would want to be treated. You have no idea where they are mentally. If not done properly and not understanding how to fire someone could become a tragic ending. Be careful. Be considerate.

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9 thoughts on “Do You Know How to Fire Someone? Really?

  1. I agree. The first time I had to fire an employee, I think I was more nervous than he was. It was devastating for me to be the one to tell that person that he was losing his job.

  2. I agree with your method. Each time I had to fire someone, they knew exactly what they were fired for. They were told this wasn’t a bad thing but simply the end of a bad fit. Go and find what your great at.

  3. After dodging the first two rounds, I was RIFed (reduction in force i.e. let go, laid off, whatever…I lost my job) from a medium sized company in Arizona. It was highly civil yet emotional. And it was very stuctured. The CEO shared the tragety of the situation to all of us, then disapeared. I then spoke with my direct report who gave a little more information while in the presence of the HR person. He then went to my office with me as I cleaned out my desk. A packet was created with the sundry ‘resources’ etc. to help me in a job search. Frankly, it was a lot like scenes from the movie “Up in the Air” w/ George Clooney.

    I think that this, more than ANY process, needs to be planned and rigrously followed. It should be as sterile as possible, too. Compassion must be extended, but only in the sense of not degrading the person being let go. This should be institutional, not personal.

    Either way, it sucks…but the process method is more professional, safe, and leaves less company exposure down the road.

  4. I was once in an interview for a QA position and the interviewer told me I did not get the job, but then proceeded to tell me where I had gone wrong. That is the ONLY time I have ever received such valuable feedback.

    On another occasion an IT friend told me that their recent programmer they hired was not working out. They told him directly and said, “Take as much time as you need and we’ll give you a good recommendation to your next job.”

    Treat others like you want to be treated. Thanks Chris.


  5. Back in 1992 I read a report about a fellow who worked for a chemical plant in Columbia, SC. He had been fired for walking off with some rare materials. Later that morning, while riding his motorcycle back to his former place of employment and while passing under a freeway underpass, two large trucks, one just leaving that same chemical plant and one approaching the plant collided on the overpass, no body injured in the collision. However, the impact caused a fairly large piece of cement to dislodge from the underside of the overpass, just as this fellow was riding his motorcycle underneath, striking him an killing him instantly. Upon further inspection, the SC state police took notice that inside his backpack were five guns and enough ammunition to kill a few hundred people. In addition, they found a “hitlist” with the names of thirty-four of his former workers – all destined for certain death.

  6. What a jaw dropping lead in. This is a great example of treating others how you would like to be treated both personally and professionally. You don’t know what its like to live someone else’s life, so its better to not judge, I suppose….but hard not to. Nicely written.

  7. Very interesting story Chris, we had an employee that went on vacation to Mexico for a week and on the day he was supposed to come back, he didn't show. After a few more days went by and no employee, we got concerned that something happened in Mexico. We tried calling and everything and finally after almost 2 weeks, we found out he never went to Mexico, he went to work for a competitor as well. I find it interesting that someone doesn't even have the courtesy to at least send an email if they aren't brave enough to resign in person.

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