Pulling the Plug

Note: Podcasts on Leading Smart are produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. While the text is carefully transcribed, it may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Every leader wants a great team. A team that can execute, a team that works well together, a team that shares the vision. As we’ve talked about in the last several episodes, sometimes to get to that team you have to let people go. To replace them with someone who is a better fit and adds more value.

That means firing them. Pulling the plug. I’ve never met anyone who likes firing people. I began this podcast telling you about my experience doing it. I’ve done enough to know that, while some are easier than others, every time causes anxiety. For everyone involved.

This discomfort is often why firing goes badly. Sometimes very publicly.

This is CNN Breaking News. Breaking tonight, the President kicks another high level member of his team to the curb in a tweet. Mr. Trump announcing just a little while ago that the Veterans Secretary David Shulkin is out.

The details of this termination are, sadly, worse than that headline. David Shulkin in an interview the next day revealed the details.

Chris Hayes: When’s the last time you spoke to him?

David Shulkin: I spoke to the President yesterday.

CH: And what was that conversation like?

DS: We spoke about the progress that I was making, what I needed to do from a policy perspective to make sure that we are fixing the issues in VA. Very focussed, he was very inquisitive about the things that we were working on, making sure that we were focussed on the job at hand.

CH: Wait, that’s before you were fired?

DS: That’s correct.

CH: You spoke to him. He made no mention of the fact that he was about to terminate you?

DS: That’s correct.

CH: And then you found out via tweet.

DS: Right before that the Chief of Staff Kelly gave me a call, which I appreciated, gave me a head’s up, and so … but that was much after the phone call.

Certainly, it’s troublesome that someone’s direct supervisor didn’t fire them. The Chief of Staff is a Cabinet member’s peer and being fired by a peer is wrong. But it’s helpful to hear him clarify that he didn’t find out via Twitter. That he got a phone call before the tweet. Secretary of State Russ Tillerson was not so lucky. He was fired via tweet only two weeks earlier.

Aside from who carried the message, and how it was delivered, the biggest problem is the surprise nature. Shulkin had a phone conversation only hours before he was fired and was given no reason to suspect his work was unsatisfactory. If there is a problem with this termination, that’s it.

I can only speculate the reason why it happened this way, but I would guess that anxiety is at the root. Firing people effectively is a learned skill. Most leaders are fortunate to not need it enough to study or practice it. They don’t need it, until they do. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This is the fourth episode on firing. In this episode we’ll explore the good and bad ways to fire an individual. This is Episode Nineteen: Pulling the Plug.

We all have some pockets of expertise. Something we’ve done enough to feel confident that we can do it well. I can write a few thousand words on just about any topic. I can also write computer code in a host of languages. And for reasons I’ve talked about here, I can fire people. I’ve done it or witnessed more than my share, and I’ve counseled leaders in the thick of it. Through the fumbling and mistakes of myself and others, I’ve garnered a small corner of expertise in the art of termination. Failure is an outstanding teacher. Today, I’ll help you avoid the worst of it.

In a future episode we’ll talk about terminating people at scale, handling a layoff. But in this episode, we’ll talk about firing an individual. We’ll explore the do’s and don’ts of doing one of the hardest jobs a manager faces.

The first question most people ask about firing people is some version of “do I have to do this myself”? The short answer is yes. I always try to do the termination myself. I don’t ask my HR person to do it and I don’t ask an assistant to do it. As I noted in Episode One, my first experience was firing my peers. That clearly falls in the “don’t” category.

It’s pretty simple: the person who made the decision, the immediate supervisor, should be the person to fire someone. The employee needs to hear it from the source, they deserve to face the decider. It isn’t easy, but it’s the only fair and decent way to handle it.

You should also always try to do it in person. Face to face meetings are the only way for everyone to feel like it’s a genuine conversation. That they’ve been heard. And both sides deserve the privilege of reading the other person’s body language. If you can’t do it face to face, make sure whatever method you choose affords a conversation. Maybe a Zoom call, or at least a phone call. Don’t do it in an email, a tweet, or some other way that doesn’t afford the chance for a response. As we’ll discuss in a minute, you don’t want to have a long conversation, but decency requires you at least allow it.

So yes, you need to do it, and you need to do it in a conversation. In person is best. I know it’s hard. I feel your pain. Leadership is not easy.

Once you’ve realized your burden, the discussion turns to when. Here, we get a chance to revisit my foundational rule of employee relations: no surprises.

When I worked at NFO Research in the 1980s I saw a lot of people get fired, and I fired a few people myself. NFO had a strange tradition, of unknown origin, where you were handed a grocery bag to collect your belongings. Kroger, the national supermarket chain, dominated the local market and the bag you were handed was most often one of theirs. Soon it became a verb. As in “oh, no, Bob got Krogered today” or “looks like they’re getting ready to Kroger someone.”

NFO also usually terminated people on Friday. It became an awkward rule of thumb to never go one-on-one into a conference room on a Friday afternoon. For fear you might get Krogered. To me, that said a lot about the culture. Be wary of Friday meetings, because who knows if you be fired next. That kind of uncertainty is demoralizing and exhausting.

NFO hired a lot of entry-level people to do telephone market research, and turnover was high. That the managers and the company fell into a pattern for termination is neither surprising nor problematic. But the way in which getting Krogered often seemed capricious and unpredictable certainly was.

The need for termination to be well considered and highly telegraphed was discussed at length in Episode Three: No Surprises. Before you fire someone, I urge you to review that discussion. Few things make a termination worse than to catch someone by surprise.

I learned through personal experience that the same “No Surprises” rule goes for the manager. Not only should you not surprise an employee, you shouldn’t get surprised in that difficult meeting either. Which leads to another important tenet of termination: be prepared.

When you walk into that meeting you want to have everything ready for what is always an uncomfortable conversation. We’ll get to the paperwork and other details in a minute, but my first concern is the discussion. Being ready for the likely back and forth is crucial, and the key is practice.

I find it most important to review the case for termination. If you’ve done a good job in advance, most employees will realize that the day of reckoning is upon them. But a few will get defensive and try to argue their way out of it. Don’t be drawn into a long discussion, make sure you have a short, clear case prepared in advance. A few crisp sentences reviewing the problem, and your decision to conclude their employment.

There are plenty of other don’ts for this conversation as well.

  • Don’t compare their performance to their peers. You’ll just shift the conversation to an unwinnable comparison or stack ranking. The employee will try to talk down their peers, and you’ll immediately be on the defensive. Keep the focus on them, their performance, and why it doesn’t meet the organization’s standards.
  • Don’t get drawn into details. Some employees will want to argue each instance at issue and take the conversation down into the weeds. This is a delaying tactic and will again put you on the defensive. Keep your sentences short, your reasons high-level. “The time for that discussion has long passed, and we’re here to close it out.”
  • Be careful not to mention anything that places them in a protected class. Don’t mention race, gender, health, family, or any similar topics. Even in passing. These topics should be irrelevant and are often illegal. This is one reason why rehearsing the conversation is so vital.
  • Most of all, don’t back down. If you reverse course, you’ll almost certainly be in the same place in a few weeks. And you’ll have set a terrible precedent. If they can argue their way out of termination, they will feel that they can argue their way out of any consequences. And if word gets out to others about it, your entire decision-making leverage will be at risk. Once you’ve decided to fire someone, do it. “I’m sorry, Elwood, we’ve been over this repeatedly. Your work is insufficient, and you’ve been given numerous chances to improve. The decision is final.”

In my experience, people being terminated are frightened. Not of you, not of the discussion, but of the future. No matter how well you’ve telegraphed it, they will want to know “what now”?

At first, they’ll want to know “what now” as in the next ten minutes. What’s the process, how will this work? You need to be clear, methodical, and deliberate. Have it well planned. Be clear to yourself on every detail.

Then they’ll move from “what now” to “what next.” What happens to my family, where will I get a job, how will I pay for health insurance, how will I pay my rent? These are the questions you should be very well prepared to answer. You need a packet of written information that covers all the bases. What the severance will be, what their options for insurance are, any resources for job hunting, and so on. Most larger firms will have this at the ready, but it all must be clearly spelled out in writing. In writing because they aren’t thinking clearly and won’t remember the discussion. And because many of these things require decisions that are best done with a clear head.

If you need them to sign a termination agreement, that can be very touchy. Unless demanded by HR and insisted on by your lawyers, don’t insist it gets signed on the spot. That rubs salt into a gaping wound. I prefer including that in the packet and making any severance conditional on it. I make sure to note it’s in there, but to never argue its details. That is a black hole of discussion that neither of you are likely to be in a position to argue. If they have questions, push them off until a later date, and retreat to your HR or legal teams for guidance.

Once they’ve moved from “what now” and “what next”, I’ve seen two general reactions: they either get angry or quiet. Neither needs you. Let them vent. Don’t feel like every second has to be filled with something.

Once that’s done, it’s over. Time to proceed. “Again, here is the packet with all the information that will answer your questions, I believe we’re done here.” And conclude this most difficult of conversations.

Besides rehearsing the discussion, there is plenty of other work you need to do in advance. Some is housekeeping, much of it is strategic.

One key decision is the timeframe. In the case of an involuntary termination, I urge you to fire and remove the person from the workplace in a single step. Don’t be seduced by the idea of a transition period, even in the most genial of situations. They virtually never work out as you would hope. Worse they risk a disgruntled employee wreaking havoc with your data, your customers, and your employees. No transition is worth that risk. Just do it and have it done, for you, them, and the rest of your team.

On the housekeeping level, you need to plan out the precise steps. Where will the conversation take place? What is the route from there to the employee’s desk? Who will escort them there? How do you get their card key? Who is removing their network access while you’re meeting with them? Where does the box or bag for their belongings come from? Perhaps don’t make it a Kroger bag.

Yes, this is hard. Yes, it’s clinical, but it is the only way to do it cleanly and without risk to the organization. I’ve seen too many people wing it only to have it go terribly wrong. It’s worth the half hour of planning to make sure it’s handled with care, precision, and dignity.

Finally, you need to face the most neglected part of this conversation, those who remain. Remember you did this for your team. To help everyone get better. Now you need to turn your attention to them.

You need to make sure everyone knows why this happened. Not in detail, but with enough specificity that they don’t see a target on their back. Here too, face to face is best. They need to read your body language. They need to understand “what’s next”. If there’s a clear, clean replacement for the employee, make that happen instantly. If not, don’t feel rushed. Panic is the enemy. Deliberate, thoughtful control is the message you need to convey. Most of all, I find hope the best approach. This was done to improve the organization. This wasn’t a bad thing, it’s the right thing. And we’re now better together.

We’ll explore the effect on the team in much more detail in the next episode on this topic. We’ll discuss firing on a large scale, as in a major layoff. As we’ve seen quite recently, there are good ways and bad ways to do that too. And the team that remains is even more important in those situations. But that will have to wait.

In the meantime, don’t avoid the issues. Have the tough conversations in advance. And plan your terminations carefully. Perhaps you don’t have to make it an area of expertise, but when it finally comes time to pull the plug, you’ll be ready.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my website, CLWill.com.

If you like the show, please share it with your friends. Just click that little share button in your podcast app right now to spread the word.

That’s it for this episode, and for Season One of Leading Smart. Next time we’ll begin a new era of the podcast, with the start of Season Two. It will feature a new look, new theme music, and more frequent episodes. Best of all, it will feature more voices. Conversations with leaders who will share their thoughts and journeys. We’ll begin with a good friend and smart leader in the world of education. But that’s next time. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.