The art of letting people go

Donald Trump

Unlike Donald Trump on The Apprentice, there is a skill to letting people go with dignity and integrity.  At times organisations are faced with the difficult reality of needing to reduce the size of their workforce.  While certainly not always the case, some leaders have no alternative but to make these decisions in order to safeguard the viability of a floundering business. It is also true that sometimes people aren’t successful in their role and need to be moved on.

Regardless of how reasonable or necessary these decisions are, how they are implemented is crucial.  Never underestimate the potential impacts of losing their job on not only the individual but also other people in their lives.  Just as important to consider is the impact your approach to dealing with these difficult decisions can have on the rest of your team.

Late last year I came across an article in The Age titled ‘When the axe falls’.  As this article suggests the way so many organisations go about firing people is highly questionable.  Critical of the approaches often taken in the media industry journalist Michael Lallo reflects on the reported experiences of Eddie McGuire who made 100 people redundant only months into his time as CEO at Channel 9. “It was a disaster . . . the worst thing I did,” McGuire confessed to his Triple M listeners last week. “These HR people come in, they have their set plays – and they never work.” Equally critical of HR, Lallo closes the article by saying “If media companies want to cut costs, perhaps they could start with the overpaid HR executives who peddle the nonsense theories that McGuire learnt are no substitute for simple, decent treatment.”  These comments beg the question ‘why was Eddie acting as HR’s puppet when he was the CEO?’ It’s difficult to know the answer to that question without more insight to the environment and circumstances in which Eddie was operating.  It does however highlight the need for leaders to share accountability for the way things are managed – simply blaming HR isn’t good enough.

In my experience HR aren’t the only people capable of advocating approaches that undermine the decency with which people are treated.  Many leaders I have worked with believe acting swiftly with cold and calculated precision is the only way to go. Emotionless communications delivered by robotic leaders reading from legalistic scripts is too often the approach taken.  In many cases you would be forgiven for thinking the team members concerned have committed some kind of serious crime.  It’s undeniably wise to protect your organisation by carefully considering your actions and words.  However just as important is managing the impact you have on the spirit and well being of the people you ask to leave your business.  Yes, even the person who failed to deliver deserves to be treated with decency.

The ten most important things you can do to ‘let people go’ well are:

  1.  Be real:  planning is important but avoid being scripted, rigid or inhuman.  Know what you need to say and how you need to say it but be flexible and ready to have authentic conversations with people.
  2. Be kind: never lose sight of what your decision means for the person.  No matter the role you believe they have played in their own demise maintain empathy and communicate with compassion.
  3. Be honest:  help people to understand potential outcomes including termination of their employment long before the day arrives.  When the day does arrive have the courage to tell people the truth about why you are letting them go.
  4.  Explain yourself:  take the time to give meaningful insight into why you have reached the decision you have.  Give people the opportunity to have their questions answered.  Some of them may be difficult to answer so make sure you reflect before hand on what people may want to know.
  5.  Don’t let lawyers run the show:  often it does make sense to seek legal advice and of course it matters to act in ways that protect your business from serious harm.  However managing risk shouldn’t lead to heartless or unethical albeit lawful approaches.
  6.  Get to the point: it doesn’t help anyone if you are tiptoeing around the issue.  Communicate your decision quickly, clearly and concisely.  As a general rule it should take you no longer than 2 minutes to say that their employment is being terminated.  It will of course take longer to explain why and answer questions.
  7.  Maintain dignity:  do everything reasonably in your power to help people leave with their self-respect in tact.  Unless you have serious concerns that someone will harm other people or damage property give them time to say their good byes and exit gracefully.
  8.  Stick around:  too many leaders ‘hit and run’.  After you have communicated the decision be available to individuals affected or other staff who may want to ask questions.  Avoid hiding out in your office – your visibility will reinforce the message that you believe in the reasonableness or necessity of your decision.
  9.  Pick your timing: there is usually no good time to deliver bad news, but there is bad timing.  Unless absolutely necessary don’t fire people on a Friday afternoon – if nothing else it can feel cowardly (more hit and run). Avoid just before Christmas at all costs and never fire someone on their birthday – that really doesn’t go down well.
  10.  Provide support:  whenever and however possible help people to move on.  For example consider providing outplacement support or give people time to attend job interviews if they are working through a notice period.

To close I will leave you with this from Michael Lallo “The most bemusing aspect is that all this could be avoided through common decency. No one likes being sacked but a simple thank you, a farewell gathering and the option to work until the contract ends goes a long way towards reducing animosity.  Yet the idea persists that brutal axings are a hallmark of “decisive” management.”

To read Michaels full article click this link


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