Terminating Employees, And The Butterflies In My Stomach

Terminating Employees, And The Butterflies In My Stomach

Words: Corey Adams
Photo: kali9

My stomach felt like a butterfly exhibit at a botanical garden. It churned and swirled at the mere thought of what I was about to do. You see, I hate firing people, and this was my first one. I remember it well. I was about to break the news to an employee that we were taking away his source of income. This meant he and his family would need to adjust and figure out a new way to put food on the table. As a young man, with a couple of young kids of my own, it was heartbreaking, to say the least. But it had to be done. I did not want to be the one tabbed to deliver the news, but it was my job.

I think what bothered me the most about terminations was the fact that it went on every day, in every industry, and I could not handle it. I was bad at it. I made it a personal goal to prevent them at all costs. That was a mistake. 

The old, and still widely suggested, method of terminating an employee is to get them to leave on their own. You know exactly what I am talking about. Be hard on them, make them uncomfortable, and basically make their lives so hard at work that they choose on their own to find different employment. That was the way we operated for a few years. The problem was that every one of those employees that left resented me, the company, the owners, and their ex-coworkers. The ones that stayed thought we were unprofessional at best. It did not help company growth or harmony. 

I knew there had to be a better way. Every time an employee situation would arise, those darn butterflies would come back. Sometimes for days. This was no way to live or run a business, and it had to change. There is no doubt that this desire to do better as a direct result of my newfound love for the business side of construction. I found myself reading, discussing, networking, and studying whomever and whatever I could. That is when I learned the first step of the business. 

The first step is obvious and regurgitated by every businessperson and consultant on the planet. Leave your emotions at the door. In principal I can agree, but how the heck do I do that standing in front of someone I am about to terminate. I believed for years that my compassion for humans and the desire to see everyone succeed was to blame for my emotions. I was wrong. I was fearful of the reaction because I was not comfortable with the system in place.

Once I realized that our system was broken, I began to implement, test, and redesign ways to do everything in our company, and employee interaction was no different. It was time to clean things up and more importantly write it down. 

A written policy is an absolute necessity. A well-written policy covers all the bases as well. It should include even the simplest of tasks. What time do we start, who is my direct report, what do I wear, how do I act, etc. I feel a lot of this is left out because we as owners just assume that the people we hire know basic business functions. The problem is they do not know your expectations. Many companies allow their field employees to wear shorts, but I do not. It is these little differences that can make a gargantuan shift in employee relations. 

Your written policy also contains disciplinary procedures. This one is a biggie. Who can give written warnings, how many can I get, what do I get them for? All of these are valid questions. The thing with clear expectations is there must be clear and understandable disciplinary procedures to follow them.

Now that we have a clear policy, and clear consequences, what next? It is easy to say show up three days late and you are gone. How do we make the process easier, and in reality, more pleasant? Well, stop telling people they are fired. Yes, that is not a typo. Your terminations need to be more than a pink slip. Almost all large companies have exit interviews. Take the time to set down and ask a few questions to your future ex-employee. You might be surprised by what you learn.

For example, we had an employee for years. You could say he was top-notch in every sense of the word. Quality, loyalty, and super skilled. We were thrilled with the results until we started asking questions. We never took the time to realize, but a high percentage of crew members that worked under him had quit. In fact, most of them did. As we began to ask questions, it jumped right out at us. He was not the most pleasant person to work with. We probably lost more than a few good laborers and skilled people because we ignored, or at best were ignorant, of the situation. Many of them went to competitors, started their own companies, or changed industries altogether. 

After these exit interviews began to shed some light on our company, I decided to push the envelope a little. I started asking the same questions to exist employees periodically throughout the year. That is when we hit the glorious unintended consequence. They actually answered honestly. You would not believe the things we learned about how our employees viewed ownership, management, and even me. What happened next was the cherry on top. The employees noticed me taking their suggestions seriously and bought into what I was trying to do. 

This process also helped us by identifying potential problems early and shutting them down immediately. Remember what you tolerate, you get more of. This process helps prevent the proliferation of toleration throughout your company. 

So, what were these questions I was asking? How do they fit in an exit interview? How in the world will this make terminating someone easier, smoother, and more pleasant? Well here are a few I like to use.

  • How do you think you are fitting in? 
  • How is everything?
  • What do you like/dislike about the company?
  • How did this situation play out?

Most of these are leader questions. Questions designed to open a dialogue. That is exactly what we want them to do. Even if we are about to terminate someone, we need their perspective on our company so we can improve. 

I know, you are still confused as to why in an article about terminations I told you to stop telling people they are fired. Notice I didn’t say stop terminating. I want you to remove the word fired from your vocabulary. I always try to make a focus on how the employee can better themselves, even if I am about to drop the ax. The answers to the exit interview questions dictate how I am going to deliver the message. 

  • I agree it doesn’t feel like we are a good fit for each other. How about we give you some time off to explore some of your other options?
  • Sounds like you have a lot going on outside of work. We are going to give you some time off to regain your focus. 
  • You have some great skills, but I do not think this is the right fit for your skillset. We think you will have more success outside of our company. 

These are just a few of the ways we have terminated employees over the years. It is a little softer, with employee focus, and definitely makes the process smoother. 

Terminating employees is still by far my least favorite part of this business, but finally, after years of butterflies, I had created a system I was confident in. This confidence made every termination easier and lowered our termination rates. Clear expectations, clear disciplinary procedures, and open dialogue. 

There is no panacea to the termination. It is an ugly business at times, but that does not mean we need to be ugly when doing it. Treat someone like a person, and it is hard for them to be anything but amicable.

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