As we generally imagine it, firing looks like something like a Mad Men-era nightmare: You get called into an office. Your boss is there. Your fate is announced. They are firm. You pack your things in a box, you leave the building, and you definitely don’t list your former supervisor as a reference on your résumé.
But according to Dan Finnigan, founder and CEO of the talent acquisition and hiring service Jobvite, if that’s how you’re doing firing, you’re doing it all wrong — and not just for the sake of your soon-to-be-ex employee. Firing is a skill, he explains, and if you’re not doing it well, you’re actively hurting your business.
Those rip-the-band-aide-off strategies that might have worked in the past? They won’t fly in the Internet age, when a few negative Glassdoor reviews can “meaningfully impact the volume of applications a company gets from talented, scarce, skilled labour.”
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fire people — far from it. The fact is, “no one is perfect at hiring,” Finnigan says, “and some percentage of the people you hire won’t work out.” What matters is what you do once things start to go south.
Here’s what he suggests you do:
Provide real-time feedback, early and often.
We all know this, Finnigan explains, but as obvious as it seems, he says lots of managers aren’t doing it: They should be providing regular, constructive feedback.
That’s true even when things are going well, but it becomes all the more important when an employee is floundering. Constructive feedback should be “biased toward the positive,” he says — not because it’s nicer (though it is nicer), but because it’s more effective.
“Animal trainers know positive, real-time feedback works, and negative feedback doesn’t,” Finnigan says. “You can’t train your dog to heel if you give him a cookie three hours after the walk.” When you do need to give negative feedback, be specific, and focus on why something isn’t working: for example, “When you do X, these are the consequences, which don’t work well for me or the company,” he suggests.
Regular feedback does two things: It gives people a chance to improve — and in an ideal world, that’s what would happen. But it also gives them a chance to adjust to the reality that things aren’t working out.
If you do end up letting them go, you won’t be blindsiding them.
Rely on hard data.
Hard data — rather than subjective gut feelings, emotion, or bias — allows you to measure performance (more) objectively, which makes firing decisions both easier to justify and easier to stomach. It’s not always possible, Finnigan acknowledges — nor is it a system beyond reproach — but he believes it allows decision-making to be fairer and more transparent.
Do your best by your employees — even the ones you’re letting go.
“If you keep someone in a job, and the person can’t do that job, you’re hurting their career,” Finnigan says. “There is a job out there that is a good fit for them, and they’d be better off to leave and go do that.”
During the firing conversation, a thoughtful manager can help an employee “understand the roles that would fit their performance.” They may or may not like your feedback, but “they will appreciate that you’ve been thinking about it,” Finnigan adds, pointing out that it’s more than likely a person who’s not achieving knows they’re not achieving — and they’re probably not any more thrilled with that than you are.
It’s worked for him. By talking to the people he was letting go about what they did and didn’t like about the job — and usually, there was a lot they didn’t like — he often got a sense of careers they’d be better suited for, including gigs within his own company: Just because someone wasn’t suited for sales doesn’t mean they wouldn’t excel in marketing.
And if he doesn’t have that kind of opportunity internally? Assuming the person hasn’t done anything wrong, he offers to be an enthusiastic reference, speaking about what the employee was good at — even if it wasn’t the crux of that specific job.
Treating your employees — current and former — well isn’t just the humane thing to do; it’s also the savvy thing to do, Finnigan argues. “It goes without saying that the people who stay in your company, who get promoted, who get paid the most — they’re going to say good things,” Finnigan observes. “The real differentiator is what people who were fired and who didn’t do well in the job say about you.”
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