Lately I’m hearing the phrase, “Compassionate bus stop.” It’s another euphemism for firing someone. Sacking them. Terminating their employment. Involuntary separation. Many people find the terms “firing” or “sacking” too harsh, so we look for alternatives — which we then have to translate. For instance, “It was time for a compassionate bus stop.” What? Oh, you fired them. Whatever phrase we use, it’s a difficult and often painful transaction. The purpose of this post is to explore answers to two questions: 1) How do you know when it’s time? And 2) How do you do this professionally and compassionately?
I’m aware that in certain cases, such as intentional malfeasance, you might not want to be compassionate. I’m not addressing those types of cases in this post. I’m addressing cases where the reason for termination is failure to perform up to expectations, and you want to be compassionate.
By the way, it takes no leadership talent whatsoever to fire someone. The challenge and the satisfaction are attached to helping people succeed. If you have to fire too many people, perhaps you should question whether leadership is for you.
How do you know when it’s time?
I begin with the stance that when I have to fire someone, it’s my failure as much as it is theirs. After all, I invited them to join us on this bus, and I assigned them a seat. Once they’re on the bus, it’s my responsibility to help them succeed. So it was either a mistake in the hiring decision or I didn’t ensure that they were trained and supervised in a way that helped them succeed. Therefore, it’s my failure as well as theirs.
Also, I always remember that other employees are watching. They correctly assume this is how I’ll treat them if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.
For me, it’s not time until I know – in my heart-of-hearts — that I’ve done everything I can to help that person succeed. First, I’ve been bluntly clear that unless their performance improves they’re in danger of losing their job. And I tell them just as clearly, and passionately, that I’m their ally and I’ll do everything in my power to help them succeed. It’s not time until I’ve delivered on that promise, until I’ve put in extra effort and really extended myself.
I also ask the following question: “Is this person in the right seat on the bus?” Maybe a different job would be a better fit for their strengths and interests. Plenty of times in my career, I’ve identified a different and better role for a struggling employee.
Unfortunately, there are situations where my best efforts aren’t good enough. The person’s performance has not improved enough. I haven’t been able to identify another role for them. There is a day when I reluctantly come to the realization that I’ve done everything I can, and additional efforts are unlikely to lead to success. That’s when I know it’s time.
How do you fire someone professionally and compassionately?
Here’s an insight not often discussed. In the vast majority of cases, when an employee is not succeeding he or she knows it long before you do. If you can’t help that person succeed, it is NOT kind and compassionate to leave them in that situation. It will start to diminish their self-esteem. If it goes on long enough, the stress might well cause health problems. Don’t be a party to it. As unpleasant and painful as it might be, have the conversation. Despite the pain, it’s the most caring and compassionate thing to do.
When you have the conversation, don’t chat about the weather or the recent sporting event. Get into it right away. Briefly review the expectations and the shortfall in their performance. Tell them it’s not working out (which they know!) and that it’s time for them to leave. If you’re sorry, say so, but don’t say something you don’t mean.
This might be painful for you, and it might present you with some challenges in your organization, but for the person being fired it’s a life-changing event. In my opinion, compassion is called for. Explain the separation process. Answer their questions. But don’t extend the moment. After your conversation, proceed to the next step.
Remember, this does not have to be the end of your relationship with this person. You can continue to care about them. You can help them in their search for their next job. The best outcome is that they find something soon and go on to have great success. I’ve been fortunate to maintain positive relationships with many people I’ve fired, and I’ve been pleased to continue to support their success as they move forward in their careers.
In summary, when it’s time for an employee to leave, take action, as unpleasant as it might be. Do it with compassion, and own your failure to help them succeed. And don’t forget, you can continue to care about them and support them even though they don’t work for you.
Thanks to my friends Holly Olson and Cydney Koukol for suggesting this topic.
And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.