Being a Good Boss

Firing people is probably the worst experience a supervisor can go through. You want to avoid it if at all possible. But the best way to avoid it is to confront it directly. That’s what my friend Brian taught me. Here’s how to take as much emotion, subjectivity and surprise out of the equation as possible, while treating people with dignity.

Stage 1. Hold short accounts.
–Give regular, continuous, timely feedback about problems
–Don’t sit on problems and wait for an annual review. Let people know as soon as reasonable that there is a problem. Give negative feedback if possible person to person. If not, then make it voice to voice. Never give negative feedback for the first time in writing—email, letter or fax.
–Discuss measurable, observable behaviors, not personality traits, motivation or attitudes. (Inappropriate comments are measurable behavior.)
–Optional: you may want to follow up a person-to-person or voice-to-voice meeting with something in writing for the sake of clarity and documentation.

Stage 2. If problems persist or recur,
–after a second (or third) person-to-person or voice-to-voice meeting, definitely put it in writing and give to the employee (in person if possible—“Bill, I just thought I would put in writing what we talked about yesterday for your reference . . . “).
–Be crystal clear about what satisfactory performance would look like (include measurable, observable standards wherever possible, including the time frame for evaluation).
–Give regular, frequent feedback.
–Start documenting the problems. Keep an incident log. Include dates, times, people involved, summary of events, summary of conversations, etc. Unfortunately, our litigious world requires this.

Stage 3. If problems persist or recur:
–Consult with your supervisor (who should inform his/her supervisor) if you haven’t already, and together contact the HR department to bring them up to date and to get counsel.
–Conduct a 360 review, including those who would be most affected or aware of the problems.
–If appropriate, find ways to manage around weakness by devising a support system, finding a complementary partner or finding an alternative role.
–If appropriate, begin to explore if there are other talents the employee has that could be better used in a different job within the company.
–Keep updating your documentation.

Stage 4. If problems persist or recur:
–Rework goals and measures as needed.
–If this is a job-threatening performance issue, meet with the employee and say that clearly in person and confirm that in writing. Let the employee know how this will play out so they won’t be surprised if put on probation later.
“Sandra, you need to know that if we don’t see measurable improvement in these areas within three [or whatever] months as I’ve put in writing to you, the next step would be to put you on probation. And if there isn’t improvement while you are on probation, that could lead to ending your employment with us. I am very hopeful that won’t happen, and I want to do what I can to help you succeed. I know you are a talented person, and I want those talents used for the benefit of the organization. At the same time, you were hired to do a certain job and we need that job to be done. I just want you to know how seriously I take these issues.”
–Keep updating your documentation, your supervisor and HR.

Stage 5. If problems continue to persist or recur:
–After consulting with your supervisor and HR, put the employee on probation.
–Tell the employee in person with a witness present (your supervisor or some other manager or representative of HR).
–Hand to the person at the end of the meeting a summary of what you said, which would include:
(a) A brief history of the problem and actions taken.
(b) How long the probationary period will last.
(c) A list of measurable performance changes needed during the probationary period in order to be taken off probation.
(d) How frequently you will be checking in with the employee and giving feedback during the probationary period.
(e) If standards are not met during probation, that termination of employment would be the next step.
(f) Affirm what the employee has to offer and that your hope is for success in getting off probation.
–Keep updating your documentation, your supervisor and HR.

Stage 6. If problems continue to persist or recur,
–After consulting with your supervisor and HR, proceed with termination.
–Update your documentation.

Sometimes very grave or acute problems can arise (such as alleged illegal activity) which may require that someone be put immediately on leave while an investigation takes place rather than going through the potentially months-long process described above.

There can be cases where no matter what you do, an employee will be surprised. The human psyche has enormous ability to deny. But most of the time, following a process like the one described above will result instead in an employee turning around performance, a manager finding legitimate ways to work around a weakness or an employee finding another job before firing is necessary.

This process is lots of hard work. But it really is not so much a description of how to fire people but how to manage people and achieves the goals I wrote about earlier. Let employees know clearly how to improve. Give them the tools and the opportunity to change and grow once those expectations have been laid out clearly. That’s treating them with dignity and respect. It’s just being a good boss.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.