Tackling Troubling Terminations


No manager enjoys firing employees who work hard and want to keep their jobs. That's certainly true when mergers or outsourcing dictates large-scale layoffs. But it's a troubling task, even when the performance of a single individual warrants the termination. The lessons Naomi Karten has learned when faced with these situations may help to ease the way for other managers tasked with terminating an employee.

When I was an IT manager many years ago, I had to terminate someone. The fellow, whom I'll call Seth, held a senior technical position. Seth's manager left the company, and I was transferred to head up Seth's department.

Seth graciously welcomed me to the department and offered to help out any way he could. He dressed professionally, was personable and upbeat, spoke articulately, and seemed eager to please. I initially felt lucky to have him in the department.

But I gradually became aware that people felt uncomfortable with Seth. It seemed that in his role as project manager, he hovered over his team members and interfered with their concentration. His attempts at conversation were clumsy, and he made people feel anxious and uncomfortable.

Given his lofty position, he was obviously capable—or so I told myself. I decided that the reactions of his team members were just a reflection of normal tensions among demand-driven personnel. But when a key customer asked me to remove Seth as her department's point of contact, I had to acknowledge that something wasn't right.

What I came to realize—slowly at first, and then like a whack in the head—was that Seth was unable to do the work expected of him. The problem was not just one of interpersonal awkwardness, which I could have addressed by getting him a coach or working with him myself.

He often had difficulty completing assignments on time, but it was more than that. When he asked if he could do a comparative analysis of some tools we were considering, I was pleased that he was so proactive—until I saw his disorganized, meandering report. Then I discovered that a chunk of text in one of his reports had been lifted from a vendor paper, with no credit given to the author.

When I asked him to conduct a feasibility study and give a brief presentation to the department in three weeks, you'd have thought I had asked him to juggle a dozen white-hot swords. He couldn't focus on anything else during that time. The presentation—well, I won't go there.

Clearly, I had to do something. To eliminate any remaining doubt about his inability to deliver, my manager directed me to come up with one more assignment for him, something for which I would provide micromanagement-level instructions, plenty of time, and a clear due date. When the due date came, he said he needed more time. I asked how much, but he didn't know.

It was time to pay a visit to Human Resources. The HR manager told me I had more than enough documentation of Seth's performance deficiencies. I was told I had two choices: either terminate him or demote him to an individual contributor position. I selected the latter. Friends warned me this was a bad decision; no one responds well to a downward career path. Deep down I knew that, but I still couldn't face firing him.

I didn't have an immediate replacement, so I reorganized the department so that all of Seth's team members and Seth reported directly to me. It quickly became obvious that this was a terrible idea. I really liked these people and enjoyed the direct contact with them, but I had quadrupled my workload. And I could only give Seth busy-work assignments—a waste of a personnel slot!Finally, I accepted that this solution was unworkable and that I had to terminate him. With HR's go-ahead, my manager had me write out exactly what I would say to Seth when dismissing him. The HR manager would see Seth afterward to finalize the paperwork and escort him out.

I called Seth into my office and told him that we had exhausted all options and I needed to terminate him. I gave him a copy of the prepared statement and read it as he followed along. His response was both pathetic and poignant. "But I want to continue working for you," he said. I'll never forget that moment.

This experience made me much more confident about handling terminations. The following is a list of lessons I learned:

  • Be open to circumstances that change your initial impressions. First impressions of an employee are just that; they are not the whole story
  • Be alert to signs that something is wrong. Persistent complaints—such as the grumblings of the people Seth came in contact with—warrant attention
  • When there appears to be a personnel problem, start collecting evidence immediately and keep a log of issues and concerns
  • Seek HR's help early on. In retrospect, I had come to believe that Seth had some sort of problem other than incompetence, but I was in no position to diagnose him. And this particular HR department was no one's preferred source of support. In recent years, by contrast, I've been impressed by the quality, proficiency, and IT savvy of HR personnel in the companies I've consulted to. If a similar situation happened today, I'd seek HR's guidance at the first sign of a potential personnel problem
  • Don't be wishy-washy. If the evidence strongly suggests the person should be terminated, have the courage to do it. Retaining the person indefinitely in hopes of some miraculous change in personality or performance level takes a toll on everyone and only defers the inevitable
  • Make the termination final. Don't make it a conversation or a negotiation, and don't leave the door open for alternatives. Having a prepared termination speech spared me from the hemming, hawing, and gulping that might have overtaken me otherwise

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