Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Ask the Professor IV

Dear Professor Plum:

One of my employees has been severely underperforming, so next week I am going to have to fire him. Although I’ve been a manager for several years, I have never actually had to fire anyone, and I’m a little nervous about it. Is there any advice you can give me?

- Sheila E., Los Alamos, NM

Dear Sheila:

It’s a natural reaction to be nervous about firing an employee for the first time. It just means you’re concerned about your employee’s feelings, which can occasionally be a good thing for managers to be focused on.

Throughout my many years of managing others, I’ve certainly had to fire my share of employees. Quite frankly, you could staff a small company with the people I’ve had to get rid of. It wouldn’t be a very successful company, but a company all the same.

Whenever I had to fire an employee, I remembered one key rule of thumb: terminating an employee is no different than breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, so the same strategies should be utilized for both. It really just comes down to finding the technique that suits your personal style, and/or the particular employee you are firing.

Here are the core strategies you can use, and how they relate to both personal and professional situations:

1. Reverse psychology
In the dating world, this strategy can be summed up by the following phrase: “You’re too good for me.” It’s a great technique to use when you’re dating someone with a big ego, who will clearly believe that he/she is, in fact, too good for you.

So, when applying this strategy to firing an employee, it should go something like this:

“Andy, I really wanted to talk to you about your role here at XYZ. You’ve been with the company for three years, and during this time, I’ve really been able to identify what you’re good at. And the truth I’ve had to face is that we don’t do any of the things you’re good at here at XYZ. I just really feel like there’s a company out there that is so much better for you, and will be able to really appreciate and reward your talents. In fact, with your strong Internet surfing skills, I’ll bet there’s a dot com out there that is dying for an employee just like you. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t give you the opportunity to find that company. So, as hard as it is, I have to let you leave XYZ and follow your true dreams. It’s just not fair for me to keep you here. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately. Thanks, Andy. Keep in touch!”

2. Laundry list
This is the technique people typically use when they have just absolutely reached their emotional limits with the antics of their significant other. So, the strategy here is to overwhelm the person with an extremely long list of things they have done wrong. By the time you’ve finished your list, the person you’re breaking up with is so angry at you that they have absolutely no desire to stay in a relationship anymore.

From a work perspective, this is a really good approach to use if your employee has been underperforming for a really, really long time, but you’ve never gotten around to addressing any of the issues. It allows you to vent all your frustrations at once, and fire the employee, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

A typical example:

“Sharon, we really need to have a serious discussion about your performance. I’ve put together a list of some of the things you do that are either direct violations of company policy or simply really annoy me.

For the past two years you have been coming in at least 20 to 30 minutes late every day. I have noted at least 15 occasions where you were not wearing nylons with a skirt, a clear violation of our corporate dress code. You eat smelly food at your desk which irritates your neighbors. You have been late with the sales report six times in the past two months. You park in the visitor’s parking lot. You still don’t know the difference between gross and net profit. You never take notes in meetings and then ask your colleagues what the action items were. You have never once remembered Boss’ Day. You take a sick day every time you have your ‘woman problem.’ You were clearly drunk at the holiday party when you knocked over three people while doing the Electric Slide.

Based on this, I’m sure you’ll agree that I have no other option but to fire you. No, you’re right, I didn’t ever mention these issues before, but you’re a smart woman, and clearly should have known that this type of behavior could not go on. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately.”

3. Avoidance
In the dating realm, this technique is usually executed through a series of unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails. It also often involves keeping the curtains drawn and lights off whenever he/she stops by to “try to work things out.” Eventually, the person you’re trying to break up with will take the hints and just give up.

The main difference when dealing with a professional setting is the first and most critical step: deactivating the employee’s ID badge and/or alerting security that this person should no longer be allowed into the building. Some employees only need to experience this first humiliating stage before assuming they have been fired. Some more persistent ones may try to call or email you, or they may try to contact HR. Just stick to your guns, delete all their emails before reading them, and make sure you have caller ID. Again, even the most tenacious employees get the message after a few months of no paychecks.

4. Replacement
I find this to be one of the most practical techniques to use in both the personal and professional worlds. In the romance arena, the replacement strategy can be summarized like this: since you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, you just start dating someone else on the side. You intentionally let your current boy/girlfriend find out so that they will end up breaking up with you. Then you don’t have to be the bad guy, and you have a backup already prepared.

In the job market, it plays out quite similarly. Let’s say the position you want to terminate is a Sales Manager. What you need to do is hire another person and give her the exact same title as the person you want to get rid of. Ideally this new person should be a slightly more attractive and younger version of the person you’re firing. Have the new person train under the bad employee so she can learn all the trade secrets. Be very vocal about praising the new person in public, saying things like, “I can’t believe how quickly you’ve caught on! It took Sarah two years to figure out how to read a P&L!” or “Gee, Kelly, if you keep up this great work, I don’t know how I’m going to keep the both of you busy!”

After a few months of this, the bad employee will typically quit. If she refuses to take the high road and resign, however, then you just need to say something like, “Sarah, I had no intention of firing you, but now that I have Kelly here and I know what it’s like to have a good employee, I just don’t see how you and I can continue this relationship. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately.”

Well, Sheila, I hope you found this helpful. All you need to do is determine which category your employee falls into, and then use the appropriate technique. And trust me, it only gets easier. Eventually, you may even come to enjoy firing employees. Until then, you may want to submit your request for caller ID as soon as possible.