“You’re fired” are two short words that can have a devastating impact. No one wants to hear that they have been terminated from a job.
That being said, it’s not easy to be the bearer of bad news either (unless you’re a total psychopath).
I can attest to that. I’ve had to fire someone. It wasn’t a “real world” job. It was still a pretty terrible experience all around.
Serving as editor-in-chief of my college paper, I was lucky to work with a group of shockingly dedicated students (these guys destroyed their circadian rhythms working a thankless gig without compensation, an opportunity to receive extra college credit, or even a working coffee machine). Unfortunately, there was one outlier who happened to occupy a crucial position on the staff. She’d fallen into it because no one else applied for the post (recruitment isn’t necessarily the strong suit of a small campus publication).
After months of missed deadlines and sluggish work, I decided to fire her after she resisted the idea of taking on some protegés to help out with the workload.
After discussing matters with senior staff, I lined up a replacement and changed all our account passwords.
Then, one production night, I called her up.
Yes, I know you’re never, ever supposed to fire someone via phone. It’s rude and tacky and whatnot, but this was college, not the real world. Plus, at that point, things had gotten so bad that I could barely get this person to even show up at the office. At that point, we couldn’t afford to wait any longer, so I made the call to make a call.
The first time I rang her, it went to voicemail. I ended up walking outside (I pace when I’m on the phone and when I’m nervous, so naturally I was moving around a lot during this fiasco). I remember it was a very bright afternoon and there were cannons booming in the distance (I hadn’t been transported back in time — this is Colonial Williamsburg we’re talking about).
She picked up on the second try. I cut to the chase pretty quickly. I spouted out my prepared line about how she hadn’t fulfilled her responsibilities and we had found a replacement. After a brutally awkward pause, she replied that she had done everything she signed on to do. I wasn’t in the mood to have a debate, so I apologetically cut her off and hung up the phone.
Was it nice? No. Was it smooth? Absolutely not. Did it ultimately benefit the organisation? Without a doubt.
Reflecting on that unpleasant but somewhat enlightening experience, I feel like I walked away with five big realisations:
When I revealed what had happened to some friends after the fact, they were amazed that I'd done it. I don't think they'd ever heard of anyone getting fired from a student organisation before.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I'd made a good decision. Allowing one person to completely disregard their responsibilities was a strain on morale and the general operation of the organisation. Firing one problem employee allowed the paper to find new talent and grow, ultimately.
You can justify your reasons for firing someone till you're blue in the face. It really makes you feel terrible.
I was frustrated with this worker and felt that her lack of interest was hurting the organisation. Still, it wasn't pleasant to actually have to tell her that she'd been terminated. While logically I knew that it was for the best, emotionally I felt bad for hurting her feelings.
In the weeks before she was fired, this worker blew off meetings and shirked responsibilities. There were times that I became so irritated that I was tempted to fire her on the spot.
Still, that would have been a bad idea on a number of levels. As a leader, I would have looked out of control and rash. Plus, we would have been left with an important vacancy to fill. Instead, I waited till I'd gotten the chance to fully review the situation, secure a replacement, and change all the passwords on our accounts before I made the move.
I was a bit worried that the rest of the staff would think I'd overreacted and begin to worry that they'd be on the chopping block next.
Fortunately, I don't think that happened. If you fire someone for fair reasons, that actually can boost morale for the rest of the office. Your other employees realise that their hard work will be valued and that people will be held accountable for their actions.
I wanted to be a 'nice boss.' I wanted my staff to like me. They were more of a friend group than employees -- this was college, after all.
However, I realised that being a 'nice boss' and overlooking a problem worker actually made me a horrible manager. By allowing someone to continue performing terribly while still enjoying the title and résumé boost that everyone else received, I was being unfair to a talented group of people. And, this sounds like justification, but I can only hope that the person I fired perhaps took the experience as a bit of a wake up call.
Either way, it's great to have a good connection with your staffers. But neglecting to take action out of fear of appearing 'mean' or 'harsh' sets your entire organisation up for failure.
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