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.
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