The 10 most common firing mistakes

March 25, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – Last week, a former student of mine introduced me to a room full of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. There was nothing surprising about her kind remarks until the end, when she declared that the course I teach at Stanford is “basically about firing people.”

I had to chuckle. My class is designed to help young entrepreneurs learn how to hold difficult conversations, whether that’s resolving a feud with a co-founder, giving a wake-up call to an underperforming employee, or persuading an investor to back a company. But it was clear from what my former student remembered that – for her and many other new managers — firing someone is the hardest conversation of all.

And it’s true: if you want to surround yourself with a strong team, you’ll have to learn how to let people go. As difficult as it can be, firing someone the right way is a benefit both to your organization and to the person you’re letting go.

If you’re determined to build a great team as well as a reputation for stepping up when it’s necessary, learn to avoid these common firing mistakes:

1. Failing to recognize when it’s time. If you’re not thinking about how to retain or promote an employee, it might be time to think about replacing him. That may sound ruthless, but a winning team requires that everyone be learning, growing and striving to meet shared goals. A simple litmus test for determining when to replace an employee: pay attention to how you feel when he (or she) drops by your office. If you dread visits from this person, he’s become what I call a “net drainer” – sucking up more resource than he’s creating. When you reach this point, it’s better for the team – and for him – to move on.

2. Delaying the inevitable. Once you’ve identified a person you need to fire, do it soon. If you put it off, it may mean you’re dragging your feet, waiting for some kind of “event” to provoke a firing: a blown deadline, a budget overrun, a lost client, a lawsuit. These things result in needlessly dramatic departures, and that means potential trauma for the employee, and for you. Failure to pull the trigger on net drainers is a big mistake.

3. Delivering the message less than 100% clearly. Watch out for ambiguous wording like “We’ve decided to make a change” or “terminate your position,” or “ replace you.” If you don’t directly tell your employee that you’re letting her go, then you’re doing her a disservice – be clear so there’s no doubt. Just as importantly, deliver the news during the first 30 seconds of the conversation. To drag it out invites misunderstanding and awkwardness. It also gets in the way of moving immediately to the next steps – organizing her departure in a way that is both smooth and helpful to her. Don’t try to be funny, and don’t try to be a buddy: If you want to do her a favor, be clear and direct.

4. Justifying the decision. People want to know why they’re being fired. But the termination meeting isn’t the time to do it. Getting into these issues at a potentially stressful or emotional time is a mistake. Set up a time and place outside the office to meet and go over reasons for the termination. That’s also when you can offer suggestions for improvement and help in finding another job.

5. Being cheap. It’s generally cheaper to offer a generous settlement. You are buying peace. They are buying their future. The agreement should include a mutual release, a severance, some placement help, references, and terms on health insurance and vacation pay. You should also decide on a communication plan that could allow a resignation rather than a firing, and perhaps provide for a consulting arrangement. Being generous means you’ll save on legal fees, avoiding the time and expense of litigation (whether you’re right or wrong, it’s costly) and reduce the risk of internal strife from people taking sides. A good settlement is helpful to the employee who made a mistake in joining you; and it recognizes that you, too, made a mistake –and are willing to cover some of its costs.

6. Surprising people. If you’re surprising your employee with the news of his termination, you’ve probably made mistakes in the process leading up to the dismissal. Most firings are not the result of a single event, so they should come at the end of a series of discussions where an employee gets feedback and progressive discipline. If they improve, great. If not, they may well get the message — and begin looking for work on their own.

7. Being less than gracious. End things on good terms. People don’t cease to exist after you’ve fired them, and who knows, someday you might run into them as a supplier, competitor or customer – or even as a potential hire! It’s a mistake to display anger, to threaten, or to blame, no matter how stressful the conversation gets. Try to convey that you’re sorry things didn’t work out, that you’re wishing the person well, and that you’d like to stay in touch. Indeed, many organizations have alumni associations that include former employees who “weren’t given opportunities to stay on.”

8. Failing to fire friends – Just because someone is your friend, it doesn’t mean that they’re a sacred cow in the workplace. The failure to terminate a friend – if put off long enough – may well mean failing to build a great enterprise. It rarely works to hire friends, in part because firing them can be excruciating for all concerned. Sometimes genuine friendships develop on the job, and these are no less thorny when it comes to making personnel changes. The rule must be to separate friendship from work. Sure, there are exceptions, but try to choose them wisely.

9. Making special rules for family. Those of us who work with family members need to be extra careful. Great businesses are teams, not families – and sometimes, family connections can get in the way of good work. If your nephew fails as your employee, you have to terminate him as an employee. Obviously you’re not terminating him as your nephew, but sometimes the distinction gets lost in the hurt of the moment. It’s unfair to all employees if there are special rules because of blood — that kind of workplace will end up being home to people who couldn’t work anywhere else.

10. Outsourcing the dirty work – The only thing people like less than being let go by a boss is being pink-slipped by a hired gun or by an HR director. Not doing your own firing is a failure to “clean up after yourself.” The people being fired will resent it, and so will the ones doing your dirty work. Eventually the whole organization will pick up on your inability to face tough issues.

You don’t have to learn to like firing people. You don’t even have get beyond the great anxiety of doing so. You only need to get to the point where you can do it when it needs to be done – and do it the right way.

By Joel Peterson