I’m told all the time that I speak in bullet points. And it’s true. I don’t like to spend a lot of time elaborating, or mincing words. It’s not that I don’t care about people’s feelings, and I’m certainly not taciturn. It’s just that when there’s a point to be made, I don’t see why you don’t just make it and move on. I think a lot of my brevity is a reaction to my time working in HR.
When you think about an HR job, lots of nice words and phrases come to mind. Outsourcing. Rightsizing. Downsizing. HR has many different words for a basic statement: you’re fired. Of course, now Trump has made this the cool phrase, but in general, firing someone is one of the most emotionally charged things you can do in the workplace. Firing comes in 3 forms:
- The worker isn’t performing. This is the easiest for a manager, and often a relief for the worker. They both know it isn’t working out, and with the right counselling, the break-up is fairly painless.
- The worker is performing, but there’s a personality issue. This is hard for the worker, less hard for the manager. Usually, the manager has decided that the situation isn’t going to work out, and is ok with the news. For the employee, this firing often comes as a shock.
- The layoff. This is the most difficult for both sides of the relationship. The manager doesn’t want to deliver the news, but has to because they have to put the company needs first. The employee doesn’t understand why they were the one laid off, and there is often an emotional confrontation.
In each of these cases, it’s easier for the manager and the HR person to rely on rote phrases. The phrases are not as charged as saying “fired”. They also are used in the planning process – while meeting to discuss the issues, HR and the manager get comfortable with rightsizing or downsizing, it feels more humane than "mass firing". So when the discussion with the employee happens, the manager uses the language he is familiar with. The problem is that those phrases mean nothing to the person being let go. They haven’t discussed the issue multiple times with HR, agonized over the decision, and made the call to fire. They are hearing the news for the first time, and don't understand the words being chosen.
One of the worst firing situations I’ve ever been in was layoff round one at the dot-com gig. Steve, the manager I was working with, had never laid anyone off before, and the first meeting went something like this:
[Steve] Bob, as you know we’ve had some financial decisions to make lately. Due to our changes in the revenue model and the goal of raising additional financing, we have decided that this is the time to rightsize the company.
[Steve] So, since the new business model doesn’t support having multiple revenue streams coming from the support organization, we’ve decided to restructure your group. I will be refocusing on the development organization and they will pick up a number of new assignments. Gretchen will help you with the transition details. Meanwhile, I want to let you know that you have my full support and I’m more than willing to help you with whatever you need as you go through this time of change.
[Bob]…time of change?
[Gretchen] Bob, you are being laid-off.
Then Bob got it. Then Bob lost it, and we spent the next 60 minutes with Steve reiterating that yes, Bob really was being laid off, and no, there was nothing he could do to change the decision, and yes, he was really sorry, and on and on.
Fortunately after this meeting, Steve was open to some feedback. He realized that he had defaulted to manager-speak because he was nervous and didn’t know what to say. As a result, the employee had been confused, and the interview was much more painful than it had to be. I rescheduled the rest of Steve’s layoff interviews and we did some role-playing. Over the next hour, he fired me about a dozen times. He practiced until he felt confortable delivering the news in a concise, compassionate way, and was prepared for the employee’s emotional responses. We structured the interview so he could see it simply:
- Deliver the news – get to the point, don’t expand.
- Pause, to let it sink in. Let the employee speak next.
- Provide more detail, but keep it focused on the employee. Start directing the conversation away from the firing and into the next steps. Think short sentences, and simple concepts.
- Refer the employee to HR or other resources for the questions that will come up once the shock wears off.
The next exit interview went something like this:
[Steve] Mary, as you know we’ve had to make some tough decisions lately, and I’m sorry to have to tell you that you have been let go.
[Steve] We had to reduce our headcount by 5%, and I made the decision to eliminate your position.
[Mary] But what about the rest of my team?
[Steve] Right now, I’d rather focus on making sure you have the information you need as you leave Old Company. Gretchen is here to talk about your benefits and last paycheck. Then, she’ll take you to our outplacement counsellors to talk about next steps. If you have additional questions, we’ll have a meeting Thursday to discuss them.
[Gretchen] So let’s talk about the content of your letter...
Asking someone to leave is never easy. It takes you back to elementary school when someone said “You’re not my friend anymore.” After running 6 layoffs over the last few years, I can tell you each one is equally painful. But it’s a part of business, just as hiring is. Learning to do it humanely is an important management skill. The key is to get the bad news over with. The longer you draw it out, and the more you try to use euphemisms or management-speak, the harder it is for both sides. So, say it. Don’t confuse it, or hide the facts. Make your point, let them respond and move on. While you won’t feel better at the time, you will later.