How to Fire Someone
June 4, 2016: Have you ever been fired? I have, a few times. My first was in the retail hardware business that predated my transition to software. The owner by whom I had been engaged to execute a turnaround brought into the business his brother-in-law, much my elder (I was 23 at the time.) who had some relevant experience in paint products, versus my having no experience in anything to speak of. A change in personal circumstances caused the owner not to want to continue to fund this enterprise, and there wasn’t enough cash flow to cover two executives. How did I respond? I rounded up a buyer for the company at the next Porsche Club meeting and replaced the owner and his brother-in-law. It was a good deal for the seller and the buyer, and I never again had to explain to my wife why I was spending money on Porsches.
With all due respect to Kias, as I have mentioned before in these essays, you are more likely to get a deal done at a high-line German autobahn-worthy-car club than at a Kia swap meet. Sometime later I did a deal at the Ferrari Club, but that was after a couple of good exits. My life motto with respect to cars is “never confuse want with need.” I had my current Georgia car serviced at a Chevy dealer in Gainesville, GA on my last trip there and was sorely tempted to trade it for the $101,000 Z07 pictured above. I’ve learned that most women think muscle cars and Corvettes are redneck, but you do get a lot of performance for the money. (My original new Ferrari in 1988 cost somewhat less, by the way.) I came to my senses and left with only my free oil change — but that particular car might still be in the showroom waiting for me on my next trip. Since I play golf, I would have no room for golf clubs and a female companion anyway. Priorities!
In the 2000’s I was involved in a prospective venture capital firm with Mayor Maynard Jackson’s legacy firm after Atlanta Life acquired it. The Mayor, whom I knew, had died before my appearance at his firm, and we were rocking along very well under a combination of some of the great business leaders of the African-American community in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the CEO of Atlanta Life died suddenly and completely unexpectedly, and we lost our champion for this fund that had already been seeded by the Southern Company and was targeting a specific problem of shoring up with capital their minority vendors. The successor management team was grappling with the economic downturn of 2007–8 and had no interest in continuing this project. My immediate superior argued the case, but unbeknownst to him and me, Atlanta Life decided to terminate me and others associated with this endeavor. The first I knew of this was when I got a COBRA letter via postal mail explaining my insurance options as an ex-employee. All I can say is this: be careful opening your mail.
In that instance I did not go to a car club and take over the company, but I do have all the documents and relationships and could pull the trigger on that concept at some future date. It could still be a great service to a much-underserved market.
I’ve also had the grim task of firing many fine people myself. Most firings are recognition of an obvious mismatch of skills and job and are generally expected. Many people are quite relieved to be freed from a situation they know is not working well. That said, the task of firing someone never gets easier. Each one is harder than the last, frankly.
Folks can sense when the company no longer needs them, even if it has nothing to do with their particular performance. I frankly cannot recall firing anyone for any kind of malfeasance; all were a matter of timing and circumstance. And, I’ve never had a large workforce of blue-collar workers where layoffs were required. All my companies have employed primarily engineers or equivalents, plus the sales and administrative folks that make the work of those engineers profitable. These smart people generally have a sense when the ax is about to fall, and many have told me that. In my company Comsell in the late 80’s, we had a rooftop patio accessible by a ladder but with a nice view of GA Tech and Midtown Atlanta. I excused one executive in a meeting up there, and subsequently no one else every wanted to go to the roof with me. We’re only talking two stories, so there wasn’t much danger of a jump to the death, but I converted a nice amenity to a platform of doom.
After all those war stories, how about some specifics? Here are a few:
1. Do not ever let the word get out before you deliver it directly. Adults deserve better treatment than that. Sending a COBRA letter is about as insulting as suddenly changing the locks on the office door.
2. Don’t sugarcoat the inevitable by hemming and hawing around in the terminal conversation. Get to the point to minimize the pain for all involved.
3. If you decide to fire someone, do it immediately. The dread will eat on you until the deed is accomplished. Get it over with. Everybody will be happier.
4. Make it as financially painless as possible. Unless your company is in a tailspin, work with your departing colleague to help him or her find a new position, and provide good references to the point of believability.
5. Keep families in mind. If you’ve worked with someone for a while, you don’t want to compromise your employee’s standing with a spouse, children, or parents. You probably know all those family members personally. Make it all look as positive as possible.
Keep in mind that the person you fire today may be someone important to you later. You might even be reporting to that person some day or trying to close a big sale over which he or she has decision-making authority. No firing is ever a permanent good-bye.
<Image by a drooling author from the showroom floor at Hardy Chevrolet in Gainesville, GA>