Fire The Employee But Value The Person

Mar 1, 2011, Written by Sue Miley

Firing an employee is quite possibly the worst part of any job.  You may think cleaning toilets or running some snooty executive’s errands would be worse.  If so, it is more than likely you have never had to fire anyone.

I still remember my first time clearly.

The First Time Is the Hardest

It was horrible beyond description.  First of all I had hired the person.  She was in my graduate classes in Finance.  Straight A’s, sharp as a wit, funny, and personable….all of this and a finance major!  The perfect choice for a financial analyst.

Three months into the job, she wasn’t catching on.  She didn’t quite get the shift from academics to real life finance where there were decision-makers and non-financial people in the mix.

I felt so responsible for her.  I spent extra time with her.  I explained the problems and made suggestions.  I used to have her job, so I felt equipped to teach her it all.

And she tried, bless her heart.  It wasn’t an attitude issue.  She was trying, but the position and her did not fit.  Somewhere around the nine month mark my boss and human resources said it was time.

I put her on a performance improvement plan and told her I would do everything in my power to help her achieve the objectives.

Still, it wasn’t working….

We were out of time and I had to fire her.

I worked for a corporation so there were all kinds of rules and processes.  When we got a day or two out, I was literally sick.

I felt panic rise whenever I talked to her.  I felt sick to my stomach when I thought about firing her.

I went over in my mind again and again “what else could I have done”?

It was d-day and I was a mess.  (I know I wasn’t being the one fired, but I couldn’t help it.)

I finally called human resources and asked if I could tell her in my office.  The thought of calling her to HR to do it….she would know something was up and feel ambushed.

They reluctantly agreed because that was not the corporate policy.

We Create Half of the Stress and Drama Within Ourselves

With all of the stress and drama building, I called her into my office.

I told her that I had some bad news but wanted to tell her myself.  When I told her, voice and hands shaking (mine that is), looking at her with such a look of “I am so sorry and I feel responsible”, she just smiled.

Yes, she smiled back at me.  She looked at me with sympathy.  She told me she knew it was coming and that she had taken her personal things home over a week ago.  She even tried to make me feel better.  “Sue, I know you did everything you could to help me.  Don’t feel bad.  I knew it was coming and I appreciate all you have tried to do.”

Phew!  What a relief.

When I went in I felt like the biggest jerk in the world.  She was now telling me that she was okay.

Not The Typical Experience

In hindsight, I am convinced that my first experience went okay because God knew it was all I could handle that early in my career.  Unfortunately, this is not typical.  I was not always in a position to spend so much time “trying” to help the employee.

Many times I end up having to fire someone that I didn’t hire.  I come in late in the process and try to manage their ghosts away.  But, I don’t have all of the history, and I have learned I can’t save people just because I have a desire too.

In some of these cases, no matter how hard I tried, people were upset, bitter, and outright angry.

It was killing me.  The advice I was getting from human resources was just to make it short and sweet.  Don’t say anything you don’t have to and get them out of the building as quick as possible.

Really?

This is the department that is supposed to look out for employees needs.

Over too many painful experiences I began to learn how to fire people and look at myself in the mirror the next day.

Here is a list of what I feel provides accountability while maintaining our Christian values.

  1. Remember to “love your neighbor as you love yourself”. I recognize that many things could happen where I am not a good fit for a particular job.  I can handle and live through being fired, but personally, I don’t want to feel like, in addition to being a poor performer, I am a bad person, a criminal, or worthless.  I am more than my job.  I need to first remember this about an employee if I am called to fire them.
  2. Don’t change your personality or style. God created you the way that you are for a reason.  If you are normally casual, stay casual.  Brief and businesslike, stay brief and businesslike.  It adds some comfort and stability to the individual to know the person sitting across from them is the same person who managed them all of this time.
  3. Stay focused on the termination itself. If you have done your job as a manager the employee already knows the history, the issues, and the whys and why nots.  You may have to briefly review them, but this is not the time to start discussing who is right or who is wrong.  The decision is made and it only hurts the employee more for them to feel they have the potential of talking you out of it.  Or, if you start getting in a debate, chances are you will have to be harsh to get control back.
  4. Be compassionate and human. These qualities are not unprofessional and they do not confuse the employee.  As long as you do #2 above, you are not providing false hope.  But, you are giving eye contact, having an even, normal voice, and open body language.  You are fulfilling your job, not getting even for a personal vendetta.  Treat them like a human being – the way you would want to be treated.
  5. Help them maintain their self-esteem. The employee may not have been a good fit for your job, but that doesn’t mean they will never find success.  Assume they will when they are matched to where God is calling them.  Express to them your hope for their future success.  Don’t overplay this because the employee may think you are insincere.  The best way to make this work is TO BE sincere.
  6. Stay focused. Did I say that already?  Some employees may think our kind demeanor is an opportunity to play the “pity” card.  Some employees will get mad anyway.  Don’t let the employee lure you into becoming one of the manager’s highlighted in the post Why Christian Business Owners Need To Be Good At Firing People.

Be confident that you are doing the right thing, yet compassionate because it effects a person’s life.

I learned in my counselor training that most people respond to others based on how they are being responded to.  What I mean is that if you are uptight and uncomfortable and/or abrupt and rude, the employee will not feel valued and respected as a human. There response is not likely to be positive.

Rarely Is The Employee 100% at Fault

Obviously, all of this goes much better if the employee was set-up for success.  This doesn’t always happen even if it is our desire.  As a Christian it is often hard to fire someone if we haven’t given them the perfect path for success.  It is rare in any situation that the employee is 100% at fault.  Unfortunately, as a small business owner, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until we can right ever wrong and create the perfect scenario before we fire someone.  At times it can literally mean the difference in the business actually succeeding or failing.

As a leader, even if the situation hasn’t been picture perfect, we are sometimes faced with the necessary decision to fire someone.

In the event this happens to you, be prepared to fire the employee, but continue to value the person!

A Resource for Every Manager

For more information about building and managing your team, you may be interested in my new FREE Ebook:

Hire Standard:  How to Find Perfect Employees Before You are in a Hiring Crisis

Click Here.

–Sue Miley

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Cheryl Smith says

    A dear friend says that sometimes we have the opportunity to loving and gentle towards others, even in the hard moments. Perhaps it is gift, true gift, that sets people free from poor situations to find the next thing. Of course, I’ve never been fired, nor had to fire someone, so it’s easy to say from this place in front of my keyboard.

    • S_Miley says

      Whether the advice is from practical experience or not Cheryl, it is right on. There is a song that says “sometimes the hard thing and the right thing are the same”. I am glad you don’t have to be on either side of this one if you don’t have to though!

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Sue Miley

Sue Miley MBA, MA, LPC helps small business owners build successful businesses on a foundation of Christian values. After 20 years in business, and 10 years as a Christian counselor, Sue uses a combination of faith, business and psychology to help clients in business and in life.

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