Five Things You Absolutely Must Know About The Fallout From Sacking Someone

Paul Martin is an organisational psychologist and Business Insider contributor. More bio detail at the foot of this article.

The recent fiasco over the sacking of members of the Australian Cricket Team highlights some of the dangers that exist when sacking people or ‘letting them go.’ Although there are a variety of views about what Cricket Australia did, it ultimately damaged its brand and trust in the market.

Top picture: Office dismissal photo/ Shutterstock

Of course there is a big difference between a team’s responses to sacking someone who is well regarded versus someone who was difficult to get along with.

If it is done well, sacking a well-liked member of your team can result in the team maturing, increasing their perception that you are a great manager and it allows them to emotionally move on so that the focus can go back to performance and productivity.

If done poorly your company’s reputation can be damaged including ‘employer of choice’ branding.

Your standing as a manager can also be damaged along with your ability to deliver business results. Your team can experience a dramatic reduction in performance and employee engagement.

Fortunately there are some insights that psychology can bring to the table which complements existing HR policy and can help ensure you are on the positive end of the post sacking stick.

Organisational psychology assists leaders to look beneath the surface at some dynamics that may be occurring but may not be immediately evident, and yet are critical. HR policies can indicate that you need to make a simple announcement about someone’s sacking and not to provide any detail to ensure the person’s confidentiality.

This ensures that people don’t pry into the reasons why the person was sacked thereby assuring that person of confidentiality and to mitigate against tarnishing their reputation. This can be useful is some situations, however there are times where following this at a basic level can destabilise the team and exacerbate pre-existing problems.

Here are the 5 things that can help make the post sacking environment one which is positive:

1. Prepare Well Before the Sacking

Even before you have the meeting to tell someone they are being ‘let go,’ take the time to understand the wider impact of what is happening with your team. Organisational Psychologists often speak about the importance of diagnosis. Whilst this can seem a bit like overkill, it is an essential part of the picture. Without doing this, you could unwittingly cause long term damage.

Making decisions about the best way forward with any significant change is most effective when done with solid evidence. Useful data with sacking can include cultural engagement and climate survey results, and qualitative data from the team.

This is vital information when thinking also of how to best deal with the space the person has left, and also assists you reflect on how best how to introduce someone new.

When seeing the data, ask yourself questions. This is often best done in written form as it assists with clarity of the reflective process.

Questions can include: “who is likely to respond strongly to this sacking? What are the factors that could destabilise team morale and diminish team performance?”

Make sure you are on the lookout for any changes in emotion with members of the team. People will often present to their manager in a positive way as they don’t want to appear weak, but might have conversations with their team members about how they are really feeling.

If there is someone you trust to have confidential conversations with, ask them how they feel the team is faring emotionally.

Even if people don’t talk about how they feel, you can tell by changes in their behaviours which might include a drop in productivity, being a bit snappy, quieter than usual or taking increased sick days off.

The team itself might change from a typically positive and productive group to one which is quiet and withdrawn. This passive aggressive behaviour has to be responded to immediately.

2. Make Sure the Employee Leaves with their Dignity Intact

It amazes me to hear the horror stories that still happen in businesses regarding the process of how an employee is sacked in companies that really should know better. If the person’s dignity isn’t respected this can give rise to a belief that the company is not act according to its values and a fear can be planted that one day that could be them which can be quite frightening.

All of these principles are important whether a person is long term, within probation time or even an intern.

The first step with any sacking happens a long time before that end point. It is essential to make sure ensure that the employee was fully aware that they were potentially going to be sacked if behaviours didn’t improve.

For a sacking to be a surprise to an employee can be an incredible and unnecessary shock. Following basic management guidelines regarding giving negative feedback is imperative. Early, specific and behaviourally-based feedback with examples is essential.

Make sure they are given specific data to allow them to understand why they were being sacked. To leave them always wondering what they did wrong and not knowing is an act of psychological cruelty.

If a sacking is done well it increases the chance that the ex-employee sees it as a growth and learning opportunity and continue to be a fan of you and your company long after they’ve left.

It is important to put some thought into the process you go through at the time of ‘letting go’ of an employee. Their dignity is upheld at the time they are told and as they are leaving the building. There are still some examples of companies shaming people as they are told to leave by taking away their computer and other company property in front of everyone in the office whilst visibly distressed.

The emotions of shame and humiliation are much stronger than people imagine and can have a profound impact on the person being sacked and the way they then brand the company after they have left. The rise of social media has given a voice to disgruntled employees. Given the way that the brain is wired, team members witnessing this type of humiliation can have a strong empathetic emotional response themselves which can have toxic consequences.

3. Engage in One on One Conversations

Speaking with team members about their response after the sacking means that there will be no nasty surprises down the track and allows them to feel heard and for their emotional reactions to be ‘drained off.’

If negative emotions in team members are identified and dealt with at an early stage, you make sure the issues don’t fester and infect others around them. Once individual and team performance are emotionally ‘infected’, it can be very difficult to undo the damage down the track.

You don’t have to be a psychologist or counsellor, but just through actively listening to the team or individuals emotional responses to the change allows them to ventilate any insecurities and for them to feel valued.

When one on one conversations are initiated by the manager, the team members involved will be far less inclined to perpetuate negative or inaccurate stories about the way the person was dismissed.

It might feel uncomfortable at the time but better this than mopping up the damage later when it is much harder to repair.

For example if there is a sense that you sacking the team member was unfair, people might feel angry. If anger isn’t expressed it goes underground and comes through as ‘passive aggression’ which can include taking longer to complete assigned tasks, not returning emails and doing what is possible to undermine the performance of the team knowing that your KPIs are on the line.

An example of how the dismissal of a team member can be managed successfully was demonstrated by Rupert Bryce, Psychologist and Executive Coach with Performance Strategies. Rupert was brought into a health services organisation as a consultant after a significant drop in communication around the office after a team member was dismissed.

The situation was assessed via feedback with employees, analysis of performance ratings and a psychological measurement which allowed for examination of the underlying processes of the remaining team members. Lower engagement and motivation were observed, and it was also found that the former team member was well liked and a key component of staff morale in the office.

This issue was resolved during a facilitated discussion at a team meeting where the former team member’s individual contributions to culture were recognised and strategies were developed to fill the gap of their departure. This meeting also provided an opportunity for individual team members to voice their reactions and emotions regarding their departure.

To reduce the likelihood of an issue like this from occurring, Rupert highlights the importance of clear communication, addressing the processes of performance management and alleviating anxiety by clarifying expectations and acknowledging the positive contribution of the former employee. A simple change communication framework was designed by Performance Strategies to guide the organisation on future decisions impacting staff.

We are emotional beings that think, not the other way around. Research around Emotional Intelligence has demonstrated how powerful emotions are with leadership and team dynamics. If emotions such as anger are not surfaced and dealt with, they tend to fester

4. Rites of Passage – ‘The Funeral’

Most significant transitions in our lives include experiencing loss and moving on to the next phase. The most effective transitions occur when the natural human responses are given some air time. The grieving process is a socio-biologically hard wired response that enables a significant loss to be emotionally encoded so we can let go of the past and move forward and embrace change.

When this is skipped and a team is just told that the person has gone and it is never spoken of again can result in people not letting go of either the person who has left or their negative emotional response to their sacking. They are therefore less likely to deal positively with the next phase of the team’s development.

This doesn’t mean you go into great detail about why the person was sacked but allow for the team to express about how the person was regarded and how it feels for them to be gone. Many leaders balk at the idea of even mentioning emotion, but the research and anecdotal evidence is clear: if you don’t do this, it is probably going to bite you on the backside when you least expect.

When people don’t have a chance to deal effectively with the loss of a team member and there is limited information, it can include false rumours developing about the team member (Chinese Whispers), insecurity about their own positions, questions arising about the effectiveness of your leadership and ability to performance manage which could damage trust in you and your credibility could be on the line.

No matter how you felt about the person who has been sacked, make sure that people do not feel that you are directly or indirectly demonizing them. For those who had a positive view of that person, they will most probably develop resentment towards you which can lead to subtle undermining behaviours which are hard to put your finger on but negatively impact on team morale and performance. Make sure you spend time thinking about how you frame the person’s leaving and turn it into something positive. This could include that the person had many good qualities, was liked by others, and had the full support of the company with moving on.

5. Manage Messages about Workflow

Team members, particularly at more entry level positions, often feel quite angry if the direct day-to-day impact of the person’s departure isn’t spoken about. People will often feel that the impact on them will be a much higher workload and even if this is the case, it needs to be spoken about and reassurance given that management is aware of this and will do what is possible to deal with it quickly.

Some of this might seem a bit challenging, but if you take a few risks and follow the steps, you’ll assist your team to move forward, enhance your leadership profile with your team, and most importantly make sure that your team continues to enjoy their work and perform so that your life at work is easier and more enjoyable.

More Paul Martin: The Science Of Success: How Psychologists Can Help Hit KPIs

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Paul Martin is a psychologist and organizational consultant with over 25 years’ experience as a public figure and in a broad range of consulting roles. He founded a well-respected profitable company and coached leaders and facilitated programs at all levels in private, corporate and Government sectors. His passion for positively influencing teams and individuals includes being involved in social change issues. He has influenced opinions through advising MPs, Federal Attorneys-General and the Prime Minister and the public through extensive media exposure.

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