HRM and Resourcing: Can You Fire Someone Kindly?
Tips on how to fire properly, with compassion and minimising damage
An interesting question to consider is “Can you fire someone kindly?” The immediate answer would normally be “Surely not”.
Most of us will not, hopefully, experience a ‘firing’, but many are presented in a range of films you might have seen. These include the personal approach such as in ‘Jerry Maguire’, with the sacking by a protégé, through to the use of outsiders and consultants (both comedic and tragic) such as in ‘Office Space’ with the “Two Bob’s” and ‘Up in the Air’. None of the vignettes are nice!
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However, some moments spent thinking about it may encourage a more nuanced reply to our opening question, such as “Actually maybe”. It would be dependent on the situation and circumstances and how public and drawn-out the ‘threat’ of being fired has been.
We need to set out some key points and assumptions.
What shall you call it and other issues to consider
First, there is an issue of the lexicon commonly used here, with a set of euphemisms, such as the person concerned being ‘let go’ or ‘surplus to requirements’ along with ‘downsizing’ and ‘rightsizing’ and different terms used.
The utilisation of the word ‘firing’ is somewhat loaded and is inflammatory and subjective, with its implications of suddenness and some sort of ‘wrong doing’. The words ‘termination’ and ‘dismissal’ are only a little less so but ‘redundancy’ has far more neutral connotations.
Second, there is the issue of the ‘firing’ being touted and seen as coming for some time or just straight ‘out of the blue’.
Third, we will assume that the ‘firing’ is legal or if not, well compensated.
Fourth, the culture, both organisational and national, around the firing, is crucial. Linked to this is the question of whether firings are a sign of ‘macho management’ or ‘failed management’. We have all seen movies and read of US workplaces where people are employed ‘at will’ and then fired on the spot and leave with the contents of their work life in a small box. Such views are reinforced in the staged TV programme ‘The Apprentice’ in the US and UK.
The ‘message’ is never good delivered impersonally, such as by text, email or even telephone – and never in public!
In contrast, we have media reports of redundancies in Japanese organisations replete with images of deeply bowing and crying chief executives apologising for their mistakes and failures in not preventing redundancies.
In terms of techniques employed to perhaps make the firing more compassionate, we can make some general points. This involves the 4Ws of ‘Who’, ‘Where’, ‘When’ and ‘What’ in firings.
Who does it and how? The ‘message’ is never good delivered impersonally, such as by text, email or even telephone – and never in public!
The latter can create organisational panic and fear, inculcate feelings that management is bullying, impulsive and arbitrary and will not help morale or innovation as this implies people taking risks. It is not just employees that might question company leadership if the public firing goes public – customers and shareholders may question management decision-making too.
There is also the question of how the employee might react to being publicly ‘shamed’. For some companies, it may end up being the start of a costly legal battle or being the subject of ‘revenge’. There are plenty of examples of public firings that have gone viral. AOL’s chair and chief executive fired a company creative director in the midst of a conference call.
It should also follow a procedure that is not only fair, reasonable and consistent but is clearly seen to be so.
Yahoo’s chief executive turned the scenario on its head when she emailed all employees to tell them that she had just been fired by phone. In contrast, the decision needs to be regarded as private, have a personal touch and be done with respect and thoughtfulness. It should also follow a procedure that is not only fair, reasonable and consistent but is clearly seen to be so.
Who should be at the meeting is another interesting question. It is a fine balance between the need for privacy but also having support. It could be suggested that a colleague or friend be with the person concerned but then it may seem more like a disciplinary meeting.
To an extent, in order to protect both sides, the person delivering the news should perhaps have someone present who will :
- take verbatim notes; and
- get the person to sign a document setting out what has happened, what happens next and that it was conducted in a fair and reasonable way within those circumstances.
As for where to do this, a neutral place is best. This allows both sides to leave with dignity.
As to when, timing can be tricky. Whether it is done at the start of the week/day, for example, or at the end, it really depends on whether the person already knows the ‘sacking’ is likely to come and the likelihood of feelings of resentment. Ideally, the end of the day, at the end of the working week would seem to be best for all concerned.
In terms of what should be said, it depends, clearly, on the reasons for the ‘firing’. Nevertheless, remaining polite and civil is cost-free, as is giving wholesome thanks for contributions, service, etc.
Remember, the world of work can be an incredibly small place and you just never know when – or under what conditions – you might meet again! The meeting should be planned and structured with a list of standard items to cover, from what happens next and when, the situations regarding remuneration and benefits, annual leave, access (email, keys, etc), property (phones, laptops, credit cards, etc) and any agreements.
Finally, what might happen if it all goes horribly wrong?
There are many ‘war stories’ of ‘revenge’ and ‘vengeance’ wreaked by disgruntled now ‘former’ employees. These range from the immediate, ‘knee jerk’ reactions to the long term, planned retort and from minor or major incidents.
For example, responses range from former staff leaving with company data, such as client lists, reports, records, etc to all types of minor ‘pranks’ to ‘sabotage’, such as of IT systems. ‘Grand gestures’ include the recent rumour that a sacked Russian airport worker destroyed an airplane with a digger.
Other long-term responses could be the continued use of corporate credit cards, etc., ‘going public’ with corporate secrets and even misdeeds or simply accusations in the media. Of course, at the far extreme are the really scary, often US-based, stories of sacked employee retribution on firms and former co-workers, even including killings, such as those at the TV company in Virginia in August 2015 and the transportation firm in Houston in May 2016.
All in all, there is the need to make ‘firings’ as ‘friendly’ as possible in the circumstances, as there are risks and costs involved. Critically, this may be the case, for both sides of the table and affect the firm’s image and corporate culture. The PR damage caused by the stories of poor or brutal firings are obvious.
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