Society

A more humane approach to firing people

boss
HBR

Summary

  • Every manager knows the termination playbook: Be direct, keep it short, walk the employee out the door, shut down access to email, and so on.
  • Having led three businesses, I have also followed the playbook.

Every manager knows the termination playbook: Be direct, keep it short, walk the employee out the door, shut down access to email, and so on. Having led three businesses, I have also followed the playbook.

A couple of years ago, however, I decided to try a new approach. I call it “transparent separation.” With transparent separations, you don’t blindside an underperforming employee or fire him outright. Instead, you encourage him leave to on his own by letting him know he is going to be let go in time and needs to start looking for a new job. I don’t recommend setting a strict departure deadline at first, but I do provide a timeframe for clear progress on the job hunt. If by the end of this period the employee is not close to landing a job I will then set a deadline for finding one.

During the employee’s job search, I actively help him. I have reviewed resumes at their request, made introductions and offered to serve as a reference. Though the employee isn’t a good fit for your company, they may be a great fit for another one.

There are five key payoffs for managers and the firm when they give an employee time to find new work:

— IMPROVED RELATIONSHIPS: It may be hard to believe, but my relationships with employees who have gone through transparent separations have often actually strengthened.

— ENHANCED REPUTATION: With transparent separations, managers aren’t cast in this adversarial role; departing employees talk about the new job they’re leaving for rather than about being blindsided by a surprise termination.

— SMOOTHER TRANSITIONS: Separations that give an employee time to find a new role also give managers time to hire a good replacement.

— REDUCED LEGAL RISK: Many terminations risk litigation, and a manager’s responsibility is to minimize this. If an employee has the time and support needed to find a new job and does, the threat of a lawsuit plummets.

— NEW CUSTOMERS AND CLIENTS: In consulting, law, advertising or accounting, any terminated employee can become a client, but they’re more likely to do that if their departure was positive and handled humanely. Conversely, an angry terminated employee may seek to undermine you from their new position, taking clients with them, for instance.

There are only a few situations where I avoid the transparent-separation approach. One is when a company is doing a mass reduction in force, laying off a swath of employees.

In these cases, it is not feasible to provide transparent separation to everyone, and if you can’t provide it to everyone, then it’s not advisable to provide it to a few.

Another situation where transparent separation won’t work is when an employee is being let go because of an active problem that is harmful to other employees or the company, rather than, simply, because of suboptimal performance. For example, if a manager’s toxicity is having a negative impact on his or her employees, the manager needs to leave. Immediately.

While I don’t believe transparent separations are a panacea, I do think they are highly underused given their low risk and great benefits. I’d advise all managers to try the approach as an experiment. The positive outcomes will speak for themselves.