How to Fire Someone Humanely

I’m surprised by how often I encounter someone in a leadership role who has never had to fire anyone. I suspect it’s a combination of technology companies generally having pretty flat organizations and also the tendency to have dedicated HR functions in larger companies that insulate people from any “unpleasant business”.

Whenever I’ve had to fire someone, I’ve not slept well the night before. Regardless of the reason, you are changing someone’s life and everyone deserves to be treated humanely. It definitely gets easier after you’ve done it a few times but I hope that it never becomes routine.

Here are my 10 recommendations for how to fire someone humanely:

1.  Immediately set the tone of the conversation upfront.  
It gets super-weird if you have a friendly “how are you?” conversation and then fire someone.  I normally get straight down to business and open with “I’m sorry we have to have a difficult conversation today” before the person even sits down.

2.  Do not use the word “fire”.
The word “fire” creates an emotional reaction – to“fire” someone implies an active act of aggression.  I generally say “this will be your last day”.  That way, it’s not a value judgment or a process – it’s just a fact.

3.  Keep it short.
There is no point in dragging it out.  But, you should at least give the person a short and true reason as to why it’s happening, unless there is a good legal reason not to.

4. Do not get drawn into arguments.  
If someone wants to argue, be clear that this is the decision, it’s already made, that you understand they are angry but that it’s not beneficial for either side to drag it out.

5. Have your paperwork in order and be aware of the local employment law.
For example, here in CA, it’s the law that you have to give an employee their final pay in the form of a check when they leave.

6. Say you’re sorry it didn’t work out.
It helps humanize you in the process. It might seem trite or hollow to say “sorry” but, on balance, I believe it helps soften the blow.

7. Don’t fire someone on a Friday.
You’ll read conflicting recommendations in this regard but I am strongly in the camp that says firing someone on a Friday is a Bad Idea(tm).  It means they are likely to just seethe about it all weekend.  If you fire them during the week, they are more likely to focus on finding another job.

8. Have others ready to cut the cord.
You will need to confide in a small group of people ahead of time so they are cued up to terminate account access, etc as soon as the person leaves the room. Create a list of accounts ahead of time so it is not a rush and nothing gets missed.
You may be tempted to think something like “I’ll just leave Dave’s email on until the end of the day”. Resist this temptation at all costs. Although this may seem counter to the “being humane” approach, the potential benefits in terms of seeming more humane and feeling better are massively outweighed by the downside risk of the person doing something stupid.

9. Treat the person with respect and try to make it as comfortable as possible.
If possible, try to make sure that their team mates are not around to gawp as the person clears their desk, etc. This will again require the confidence of someone you trust.

10. It should not be a surprise.
Firing someone should be culmination of a process of clear and honest communication over weeks if not months.  If you are a good manager, the person on the receiving end should be clear on the gap between what is expected of them and their performance.
With the exception of gross misconduct, if there hasn’t been such a dialogue, you probably shouldn’t be firing the person.

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What it means to be a Good Boss

This is of course a topic that many, many others have written about but here’s my quick take on what it means to be a Good Boss(tm).

I took the approach here of thinking first about what I like in a boss. Then I did a quick survey of the people that currently work for me at Razoo to see what they think it means.  Here we go:

1. Listen, listen, listen

Sure, sometimes things just need to get done. However, we’re all human beings so we appreciate being heard and empathized with, even if there is nothing our boss can actually do to change the situation or our boss just simply disagrees.

One of my team looks for “quality in response – provide good responses showing understanding with empathy“.

As a boss, part of your role is to be a therapist, like it or not.

2. Set context

Management often focuses too much on the “what” and not enough on the “why”.  Not only is the why vital  for maintaining motivation – few people enjoy working on tasks that seem pointless or futile – but the context is also a big part of enabling people to think outside the box; it enables people to come up with a different “what” in the service of the same “why”.

As one of my team put it, a Good Boss(tm) “helps the team understand and focus on what’s important“.

3. Define success

As well as telling me what my role and activities mean in the context of the bigger picture, be specific in defining what achieving the objective actually means; the more specific, the better.  That way, the danger of a misunderstanding is minimized and trust is maintained.

Couch this success both in terms of what it means for me, the team and for the company as a whole.

Quantify results – provide measurable metrics for all my requirements,” said one of my team.

4. Give me what I need to be successful

Once you’ve told me what success means, if you’re not giving me the tools, information and support to be successful, you’re setting me up to fail.  A Good Boss(tm) realizes that his or her role is to support the team; to be in service of the team, rather than the other way around.

5. Manage me at the right level for me

We’re all different.  We arrive at our jobs with differing levels of preparedness for the role.  Sometimes we’ve done a very similar job at a very similar company.  Other times, it’s a step up for us in responsibility and/or a new industry.

Depending on who I am and my experience, I will need different levels of hand-holding.

By default, a good starting point and principle is to trust me to do the job that I was hired to do, unless and until you have evidence warranting otherwise.

I was also told that a Good Boss(tm) is “respectful of people’s abilities and aspirations but also of their limitations and reality“.  Well said.

6. Understand what I need to be motivated in the long-term

A Good Boss(tm) understands that superficial carrots and sticks don’t motivate in the long-term. Doubly so in a knowledge-worker industry like IT, with 100% employment.

Most of the research that’s been done over the past 20-30 years has pretty categorically shown that knowledge workers actually do worse when working towards a reward/bonus.  For an interesting and fun example, check out this TED talk on the “marshmallow challenge”. In the software development industry, there’s also this classic from Joel Spolsky.

Feeling like I’m doing a good job, adding value to the business and that my contribution is appreciated by my peers and superiors will motivate me much more in the long-term than any threat, reading of the riot act, bonus scheme or desk ornament.

For even more on this topic, read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

7. Give me candid and timely feedback

A Good Boss(tm) has to have the courage to tell it like it is. I would much rather you tell me about concerns or negative feedback immediately, before it festers.  If you wait to say something until it has become a Big Issue but I have no idea, trust is lost and the results are almost always bad.

8. Inspire me to be better

A Good Boss(tm) pushes me to continuously improve what I do and how I do it.

As one of my team put it, a Good Boss(tm),  “knows how to safely stretch people outside of their comfort zone”.

A good part of this is of course leading by example.  A Good Boss(tm) needs to also be “passonate – show that you care about what you do“.

9. Build and nurture a high-performing team

The above points are more about the individual and the 1:1 relationship between boss and employee.  Of course, a Good Boss(tm) is fundamentally in the business of building teams that function.  This requires an understanding of many issues such as the differences in personality types, learning styles, backgrounds and experiences as well as being good at hiring and managing “up or out”.

A Good Boss(tm) “facilitates healthy discussions, defuses tense/poisonous situation” and “fosters a positive work atmosphere, favors collaboration“.

Again, you’re a therapist; get used to it.

10. Always try to be a better boss

It’s a two-way street. You have to help and inspire others to get better but you also have to continuously strive to get better yourself. A Good Boss(tm), “reaches out to the team constantly to get better at being their boss“.

Thanks to Patrick, Vince, Stephen and Alex who put up with me being their boss and contributed to this post.