A recent article by my friend Amy Gahran about The True Cost of Cowardly Management has left me thinking about the proper way to tell an employee that they’re on probation and, ultimately, to fire them.
While I haven’t fired hundreds of people (no, I’m not Donald Trump and no I don’t actually enjoy firing people) I have certainly let employees go and know just how difficult it is, even when there’s no question that the person needs to part ways with the firm.
The foundation of any good employee / employer relationship is communication, in both directions, but so few companies seem to really emphasize that as a cornerstone skill. As an employee, you have just as much responsibility to communicate your accomplishments and failures to your boss as they have to communicate corporate policy and strategic course corrections to you.
As a stepping stone along this path, I will state bluntly that there should never be surprises in an employee review. If the employee is surprised, their management is in error and needs to learn more about how to manage. If the manager is surprised at the employees response or rebuttal to comments, then the employee is deficient in communicating to their boss. Either way, just like any other good relationship, the employee / boss relationship should be characterized by frequent, clear and honest communication.
And yet so many are not that way. I can recall, when I worked at HP Labs, going into a meeting with my boss, hoping for a job redefinition to match what I had been doing, just to be completely shocked when I was actually put on probation for not doing my specified set of tasks. Looking back on it now, it was my manager who was unable to communicate clearly, because I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have been receiving clear communications all along and the “probation” should have been step 4 or 5, not step 1.
But what Amy describes with her friend is far worse: being terminated wasn’t the seventh, eighth, or tenth step, but the very first step in the process. A clear and embarrassing error on the part of management: unless it’s for an egregious and overt violation of a written employment policy, no employee should ever be fired without warning.
If an employee is caught stealing, harassing other employees sexually, or badmouthing the firm to the press, then I can see the company documenting the situation as part of a termination letter, but even then, a documented paper trail is an important part of good management practice.
And “paper trail” is a good watchword for when you terminate someone, actually. Start with some email or written memos documenting the gap between what you expect of an employee and your perception of their performance. Then a formal letter or two, a probationary period with specific milestones for improvement, then, finally, a termination that shouldn’t be any sort of surprise because there’s been a clear and open communications path all along.
No manager I know enjoys firing someone, but if you do have to let someone go, at least have the professionalism and respect to terminate them in this manner. You should never come into a meeting under questionable, bogus, or false pretenses, and you should never be surprised by a termination.