It’s been almost 10 years since Yahoo fired then-CEO Carol Bartz. You might think that’s old news, but it was the manner of Bartz’s firing that was unique. They simply called her on the phone and fired her. Thankfully, terminating people with a phone call hasn’t become common, but it still happens.
What did we learn about Bartz’s termination? First, it wasn’t a heated argument that exploded into a “you’re fired,” but rather something the board knew they were going to do. Second, we learned that Yahoo’s board was merely trying to be efficient. Sorry, not a fan. I like what Stephen Covey says: “We can be efficient with things, but we need to be effective with people.”
If we’re being effective as managers, terminating someone’s employment should rarely be a surprise event. Except for deal breakers such as theft and violence, a termination meeting should occur as a logical conclusion to a series of efforts to correct unwanted or unproductive behaviors. In other words, the employee should know that his or her termination is imminent because he or she has not made timely progress on issues that have been previously discussed.
Granted, I’m not a lawyer, so bounce anything I say here off your corporate legal counsel and make sure whatever you do is in keeping with federal and state employment laws, but here’s how I recommend an employee be terminated if it must occur.
First, employees need to know what’s expected of them. Reasons for termination should be outlined in a company’s policy manual. The manual should also outline the procedure the company will take when people violate policies. A common process is a verbal warning, then a written warning, followed by termination.
When a serious problem is noted, have a meeting to give the employee an official verbal warning. Allow me to underscore the words, “official verbal warning.” In other words, the meeting needs to have a sense of formality to it. Just saying something in passing can often be misconstrued or not taken seriously, so something needs to be different. The employee needs to understand that he or she is being given an official verbal warning. And, although it’s a verbal warning, make sure the warning is documented in the employee’s personnel file.
One common mistake at this step is only telling the person that he or she needs to improve or change. A better approach is to be specific about the errant behavior and what is expected. Also, instead of giving a one-way lecture, make it a two-way conversation so the employee has input, too. Make sure the employee is aware that if improvements are not made you will proceed to the next step in the disciplinary process.
Should the employee fail to improve, the next step is usually a written warning. In this document you should note that you have previously counseled the employee on the errant behavior and that because improvements have not been made you are issuing a formal written warning that continued errant behavior will lead to termination.
As before, explore ways to help the employee improve. Also, establish a follow-up date to evaluate progress. Written warnings should always be signed and placed in an employee’s personnel file.
Follow Up: On the follow-up date stated in the written warning, meet with the employee. If satisfactory improvements have been made or progress toward a goal is evident, congratulate the employee and provide additional coaching or assistance to help the employee stay on track.
However, if the employee has not made satisfactory progress, chances are he or she knows it and termination will not come as a surprise.
If you know you’ll be terminating an employee, prepare ahead of time. In other words, have all the paperwork in order and do what’s needed to make the termination occur as smoothly as possible. You will definitely want someone else to be in the room while termination occurs. If things go sideways, you will need a witness.
There’s no need to be a jerk or hard-nosed during a termination. A person is losing his or her employment, so at the very least, an atmosphere of civility is in order. That said, avoid being apologetic. It’s better to state that despite the efforts made, a termination must occur. Trying to soften the blow by dancing around issues only makes things more difficult, so keep this conversation brief and to the point. The decision has been made. All you’re doing at this point is taking care of the HR paperwork and formalities. The entire termination process should take less than 10 minutes.
What not to do
I have several acquaintances who were terminated in ways that did not follow these guidelines.
Sarah (not her real name) had been an assistant editor for a magazine, and she also wrote stories. After 10 years of faithful dedication, a new editor told her, “You need to write better stories or I’m going to let you go.” No advice was given. No definition of “better” was ever explained. Sarah asked for advice, but none was given. She even attended creative writing classes (that she herself could have taught) which she paid for out of her own pocket. After two months, Sarah was unceremoniously let go.
Tammy (not her real name) was a highly respected childcare worker in a large nonprofit. A new assistant manager told Tammy one of her new responsibilities was getting more parents to volunteer on various projects. She succeeded, but each month she was told she wasn’t getting enough. No number was ever articulated, but several times she was told she needed to recruit “more” volunteers.
Despite getting more parents to volunteer each month, after three months, Tammy was terminated without warning.
Suffice it to say I lost respect for these companies when I learned of these stories. Check with your lawyer, but using the time-tested method outlined above is a whole lot better than abruptly terminating people without defined milestones. And, however you do it, try to avoid firing people over the phone.
Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach him on his office phone at 208-375-7606 or through his website at www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com.