Letting People Go

I had an employee many years ago who I liked a lot and who came from a tough background. He started lying about the hours he had worked. It was very, very hard for me to send him away. I let the situation go on for a couple of months. But then my shop foreman said: “Him or me.” Which was the correct thing for him to do. The Partner had a philosophical attitude about dishonest employees: he fired them immediately and felt bad for them but told me that there was nothing else to do. “They do it to themselves,” he would say. He was right, and I have taken that lesson to heart.

The most unpleasant moments of my adult life have been spent in the act of firing people. In order to steel myself to complete the task, I first write a summary of the misbehavior, who discovered it, and what rule was broken, and what I intend to do about it. I also write a short acknowledgment form that the employee will sign and that confirms what happened. It makes clear that the employee was responsible and that the reason for the firing has been explained. I get one of my senior people to act as a witness. We set up a camera in the room so that the entire conversation is recorded. We bring in the employee, tell him that he is being recorded, and have him acknowledge that he understands that this is being done.

In the small business section of the Times, a business owner discusses what it’s like to fire someone.

I have both been let go, and have let people go. Of course, when I say let go, I mean being laid off, which is different from being fired. When you’re let go, it’s usually due to forces out of your control, meaning there isn’t enough money around to keep you, and the upside is that you’re eligible for unemployment. 

When I was let go from a job during the recession, my boss watched as I packed up my desk and canceled my interviews for the rest of the day. When I got up to shake his hand, he turned away from me, walked into his office, shut the door and cried. I wrote a note and slipped it under his door: “I just wanted to thank you, and say goodbye.”

A few years later, I would understand how he felt when I worked at another company and had to let a bunch of my staff go due to budget cuts. Most of the people I let go sympathized with me because they understood the situation I was put in, but one or two people were really upset and later wrote me angry emails about how they felt about everything. This was a mistake. It was unprofessional, and unnecessary bridge-burning.

I remember responding with something like, “thank you for voicing your concerns,” or something equally robotic-sounding because you have to be careful about what you say in these situations. Thankfully, I later received apologies from both of these people who explained they reacted poorly in the heat of the moment. Just because you’ve burned a bridge doesn’t mean you can’t repair it.

You can respond to terrible news with grace. You can also go out with a bang, but I haven’t seen anyone do that successfully, have you?


Photo: Shutterstock/Blend Images


10 Comments / Post A Comment

EvelynGarcia (#849)

Though I’ve fantasized about it plenty, in the moment I’ve never come up with a “f-you exit” that didn’t just make ME seem petty and small.

Also, the world is small. The human scum that owned the restaurant where I worked in college became a client of the microfinance nonprofit where I had my first “real” job. I was glad to be able to be coolly cordial with him years later. Because I had initially planned to ohhh I don’t know, set his car on fire?

Norrey (#407)

I worked as a residence hall director for a few years and had to fire some people – and it always sucked. They were all young students who had made stupid mistakes, and I always told myself it was a learning moment for them, but I almost always cried when I got home on those days. I have a lot of respect for people who have to give bad news to others on a regular basis.

NoReally (#45)

Oh god. My juicebox ex-manager hired a woman who wasn’t unqualified. No one had any idea why. He said he’s train her. After a couple of weeks he decided he wouldn’t, and canned her, basically saying the job description had changed (so dumb, such a dick, this guy). She was completely shocked, and just, exploded. Yelled. Raged. And then savaged him (though not by name) on her blog, which I think she’d mentioned, but not actually directed anyone to. Though once one person had found it, of course everyone was there. Later I heard she’d been rejected for another job at a related company because they’d heard the story. Which was too bad, because she really had been provoked.

Maybe it was worth it. He was totally humiliated by the blog bit.

NoReally (#45)

@NoReally Wasn’t qualified. Was unqualified.

The worst is firing under false pretenses. If you can’t afford someone’s labor, do the honorable thing and make that clearly and officially the reason. I absolutely cannot stand companies that suddenly latch onto a mistake that would never otherwise have been a fireable offense just so they can try to deny unemployment. It’s like the ball-kickiest thing you can do to an employee.

elizabeast (#629)

The one and only time I have been laid off was maybe one of the worst ways one could be laid off.

In 2008, I was working at a small, shop that sells craft supplies managing their online store AND working the floor, and I had been there for about three years. The owner took the staff out for our annual holiday dinner and just as our holiday bonuses were being handed out one of my more nervous coworkers asked if there were going to be any layoffs. The owner insisted he wasn’t laying anyone off and he wouldn’t be cutting any hours.

On January 2 the owner called me to tell me he had to let me go. I had a ton of sample work I was working on at home for extra money that I would not be paid for. My severance was a week’s pay which he thought was generous, but I thought was ridiculous given that I was being laid off with no warning.

I still love the shop, and some of the employees are very close friends…but I’m also still annoyed I was laid off after being assured there would be no layoffs. C’est la vie.

@elizabeast Damn how would you even handle that situation though?! Holiday dinner … “No there aren’t going to be layoffs.” or “Yes there might be some layoffs.” One is a lie, one is harsh and terrifying as hell right before the holidays! I mean, I’m an advocate for owning the cold hard truth but I probably would have lied without thinking on that one. Maybe it would have been nice to send a correctional email or something “I know I said x, because I was caught off-guard, but actually y.”

Ahhhhh a week’s severance now that is harsh as hell! :(

e (#734)

I worked for a small bookstore that also ran campus bookstores. The company was a family owned successful place until the owner got it into his head that he should keep expanding. Built a huge new store way out on the highway and rapidly starting running out of cash. I worked at one of the campus stores and they had brought in new management only a few months back. They had us work around the clock during finals week, running the book buy-back program and shipping out all the books (carrying huge 100 pound boxes of textbooks) then they had the new manager lay off everyone but the assistant manager. The assistant manager had to lay off his fiance, and he couldn’t even quit in protest because then they would have zero income. It was awful, we all cried.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

This is silly, but, a friend of mine was working at a pizza place, and had been butting heads with the manager. One day the manager called him over to a corner of the store to say that he was considering letting him go. As he was halfway through his prepared speech, that song “Take This Job and Shove it” came on the radio through the speakers. My friend just sort of grinned, took off his apron and walked out the front door. Even the manager had to laugh about it.

omgkitties (#206)

@AnnieNilsson I’m picturing him dancing his way out the door, full on boogie-ing, and it is fantastic.

Comments are closed!