Upon visiting Barcelona years ago, I attended one of Spain’s most legendary and notorious sports undertakings, the Bullfight.  Open to the experience, I absorbed the cultural

The Bullfight

tradition, historical pageantry, and deadly tournament of man against beast.  I found my ethics deeply confounded between the incontrovertible proficiency of the Matador pitted against the vicious lethal conclusion for the Bull.  Once seen, no one can question the passionate dissension and controversy which surrounds the Spanish tradition.  But regardless of one’s viewpoint, I learned there is nothing which elevates a collective visceral disgust, even among the aficionados, more than a “bad kill”.  Finally the Bullfighter poses instants away from the “moment of truth”, cape and sword hand in hand, with a solitary clarifying resolve; to confront and kill the bull – courageously, skillfully, swiftly, and faithfully.  Mishandling the charge gives rise to a spectacle of superfluous agony and suffering that infuriates the crowd bringing dishonor and tragedy to the contest.  A matador incapable of executing his primordial obligation with decisive professionalism is hastily castigated by the crowd and jeopardizes ignominy.

Leaders face these critical moments when confronted with the task of terminating an employee.  In order to build an A-Team and perpetuate a climate of motivation and winning, underperforming and incapable employees must be removed.  Unfortunately, this means their employment must be terminated.  We can attempt to masquerade the rhetoric, but in reality this is a serious Leadership undertaking which severely impacts someone’s life.  Such a responsibility can never be taken lightly.

Termination is a testing shock to even the most hardened of employees.  It is also an enormously grim assignment to carry out for the person performing the termination.  It may appear effortless to those who have never headed the process and call out for another person to be fired or question why a particular employee remains.  But many agitators would quickly feint from their ostensible convictions if faced with actually personally terminating someone else.  Sitting across from a person and looking them “dead in the eye”

from the movie "Up in the Air"

while explaining they are going home today to their family with no job can weigh on the psyche of the toughest Leaders.  Regardless of how many times a Leader has performed the act, most still get a knot in their stomach in preparation for the final confrontation.

Once you determine an employee is incapable of contributing to you A-Team, whether purposeful or incapable, you must develop the essential plans to replace them.  You must possess the confidence in your skill of the termination process so as to prevent the uncomfortable actual act from creating anxiety which results in procrastination.  Although it may seem harsh, the ability to effectively terminate an employee is a required skill and performed well will prevent unnecessary pain and suffering of the individual facing the consequences.

It is important before terminating an individual that you comprehend and follow the policies and guidelines of your company.  They exist to prevent exploitation and limit exposure.  In most cases, you will want to provide the employee with reasonable warning and opportunity to correct their actions and avoid the termination.  There will be times however, when because of the seriousness of an infraction or threat posed to the organization, a warning becomes imprudent.  Or you may be faced with a person, who regardless of their best efforts, is just not up to the required commission.  Regardless of the policies followed or the situation at hand, as much as we wish they expected it, most people are utterly flabbergasted with the reality they are being fired.  And it is this element of disbelief that makes the confrontation so precarious.

HR will provide you with what to say, what not to say, and how to say it.  With this routine instruction most managers can remain out of trouble and get the job done.  Firing techniques are seldom discussed because they run the risk of “bad form”, but a messy termination confrontation can create collateral damage throughout your team causing a serious set-back to winning momentum.  If you want to be proficient and compassionate when terminating an employee, add these Street Smart Leader lessons to your HR repertoire.

Do Not Torment

The component of the bullfight which most often offends the sensibilities of onlookers is the perception of torturous acts being committed.  There is often a window of time

Tortured Bull - Disgraceful

between the decision to terminate an employee and the actual event.  Immature managers often use this time to berate and criticize the employee.  It is as if they plan to weaken the employee’s resistance and fight for the imminent meeting.  They would like to create a certain “resignation” in the employee’s demeanor as a way of weakening possible opposition.  While this may appear to be giving the employee a “heads up” it is a coward’s way out and should be avoided at all costs.  Make the decision, understand the time frame, and wait for the moment to perform the termination honorably.  You have other priorities to focus on in the meantime.

Care for the Living

Once you have honed your skills in this arena it will not be necessary to over-think and over-plot the actual termination meeting.  It will be on your calendar and you will handle it with the professionalism of any other appointment.  Before then, your priority should be focused on the Care of the Living.  You must understand this actions impact on the organization.  What will be the ramifications felt by fellow employees?  As a Leader, you need to ensure that regardless of one person’s failure the remainder of the team remains charged up and ready to go forward.  The impact possibilities must be clearly understood at the “people level” and plans should be prepared to maintain a positive environment for the remaining team members.  How will you keep you team intact, unaffected and moving forward during this transition?

Terminate without Discussion

When the appointed time comes, find a private place to have a conversation other than your office.  This is an important key not to be overlooked in efficiently handling the termination.  It is a rookie mistake to become trapped in your own office by someone who becomes argumentative or emotional.  By planning the meeting in a conference room or neutral place, you are able to have a brief conversation and then have the option to leave the room if you must.

Next, leave your emotions outside the door.  Chances are good that you are angry, happy, disappointed, sad, or regrettable about this person’s outcome.  Any of these emotions can be used to trip you up during the conversation and cause problems down the road.  Enter the room unemotional with a job to do.  Anything more is a liability.

Your meeting should be brief.  You want to make it clear individual why you are there.  Within the first two sentences you should let them know they are being fired.  “Sally, I am sorry this is going to be a difficult meeting because we have made the decision to let you go.  We are terminating your employment because we do not feel you are the right fit for our company any longer.”  It is a blunder to engage in any explanatory conversation regarding your reasoning.  If they ask why, or for specifics, you must answer that,” this decision has been carefully thought through and it is final.”  If they persist, you must become repetitive with your answer.  There is not anything you can say during an employee’s termination which is going to make the situation better for them and you will never convince them that you are right or a nice guy.   Some companies prefer to have another individual in the room as a witness.  If someone is with you make sure only one person does the talking.  Two people going back and forth create a conversation, which is exactly what you do not want to happen.  Your entire meeting should take less than 5 minutes.

It is difficult to envisage how an employee will react after hearing these words.  Some become quiet or upset or argumentative; they are in this moment dealing with a very difficult reality.  I believe they should be allowed their reaction, provided it is not violent.  It is your job to respect their reaction and stay calm and cool under any distress. Give them a quite unresponsive moment to absorb the gravity of the situation.  Once they realize they will not be able to argue the merits of their case they will typically shut down or break down.  Now clearly and quickly move them through your company’s exit process (typically clearing out their desk, receiving the termination paperwork, turning in company equipment).

Get Your Message Out Quickly

As soon as this process begins other employees will quickly determine what is happening.  Your key managers should be “on deck” ready to deal with other employee’s early reactions.  If you have planned correctly, with the termination concluded, you should be in a position to quickly and concisely communicate to your team.  You can explain what has happened and how you will be moving forward.  You cannot explain why it has happened.  “Trashing” the terminated employee is never a good idea.  Emotions run high for everyone when someone falls.  Be decisive and without sounding threatening make sure the team understands that we need A-Players in every position, all of the time, if we are going to win together.  Let them know how difficult these decisions are to make but they are necessary if the team is to stay strong and move forward towards its goals.  This is not a time for explanations as to why you terminated an employee but rather an excellent opportunity to reset expectations.

Lead a Unified Transition

Even the best termination decision will be quickly questioned if the team’s work begins to fall apart.  Any lapse in customer service, production, or any other important function will be considered your failure once the employee leaves the building.  You are responsible to make sure there is a seamless flow of work activity along with your decision to terminate the employee.  Do not expect relief or understanding from anyone including your boss as to the difficulties the termination has created.  You made the decision and you are responsible for the results.  Expect the key members of your team to pick up the slack and make sure to roll up your sleeves and jump in wherever necessary.  Your immediate goal is to make sure everyone perceives an improvement in the team’s overall performance immediately following the termination.

You cannot afford failure at this time.  Your boss, your peers, and your team will be very critical of any performance letdown.  This is a time to prove to everyone you were right

Difficult Job - Well Done

to remove the “dead weight” from the team.  More often than not, if you have built an A-Team, they will rise to the occasion and support the transition beautifully.  Being ready with a working plan and executing it flawlessly will keep the leverage of the situation on your side.  Moving forward, your team will understand that if they do not perform as individuals you are just as capable of replacing them.  It is a harsh reality, but you have just “raised the bar”.

Terminating an employee is a serious and difficult responsibility for any Leader.  And it should be!  A Leader should be on unshakable footing and possess the skills to correctly carry out his duty.  Culling the non-performers continues to sharpen and build the skills of your A-Team and unfortunately is a never ending requirement.   A good manager understands the employee handbook and how to carry out the termination policies.  A Street Smart Leader knows how to make a good, quick, clean, and efficient professional termination.  He knows how to treat the person with respect while conducting the difficult assignment inside his preset protective parameters.  Most importantly he understands the importance of Caring for the Living and moving forward with unquestionable grounding.  Messy and poorly executed terminations leave your team infuriated and disgraced.  Terminations will continue to be a somber and intimidating part of the Leadership job.  But with compassionate courage and thoughtful skill a Great Leader can bring honor to his team even during these difficult transitions.

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