Breaking Up is Hard to Do

No, we’re not cuing up the latest Adele song or sitting on our couch eating ice cream and watching rom-coms. But we are talking about professional breakups. A CEO once said to me – “A successful organization isn’t defined by who the leadership team hires – it’s by who they fire.” There is a significant amount of truth to that – but I’d add it’s not only “who” they fire, but also “how” they fire. The ways in which decisions are communicated can have massive repercussions internally and externally, on culture, retention, and hiring (read: people gossip. A lot).

This is even more critical for start-ups, where hiring talent is a major investment of precious time and capital; potential investors will ask about org departures; and competitors may be hunting for (potentially disgruntled) people. Once you have made the difficult decision to let someone go from your organization, keep in mind a few “do’s” and “don’ts” on how to communicate it:

Do not – come out of the blue. At no time a firing should be unexpected – if it is due to performance issues, there should be an initial warning conversation, clearly articulated expectations around improvement, and ideally additional coaching / tools. If it is due to cost constraints, then the team should have been made aware of the company’s financial standing – even if at a very high-level – so there is some expectation. Rule of thumb is, no one should walk into a room and have no idea they are about to get fired – if that is the case, then management is at fault.

Do – have an honest conversation. What were the expectations unmet, which criteria were not satisfied, when was this communicated historically? If there is an ethics issue (e.g., employee submitting personal expenses as business-related), the situation may appear more black and white, but for cultural reasons as well as legal risk mitigation, be able to point to the item on the employee’s contract or company value statement which has been violated. This is also productive in terms of internal alignment and clarity of communication to the broader org as well.

Do not – turn the office into a “Mean Girls” situation. When someone hears about meetings about their function or with their team that they weren’t invited to, it can be unsettling. But leadership should be having a direct conversation about performance and roles / responsibilities (e.g., we are shifting this region to person X to manage because of Y), as opposed to silently reshuffling the deck and dropping passive-aggressive cues. Remember, you’re running a business, not a high school drama club.

Do – know that the feeling may be mutual. When I first had to let someone go I was devastated – but I looked at the situation from his perspective and realized that if the company is not happy with him, odds are strong that he is not happy as well. He affirmed my thinking when we had the conversation – that his skills weren’t a match with the role, and he was just as frustrated as I was –by working on areas he’s not proficient in, while feeling underutilized for the areas he performs strongly in. Roles change and companies change, so put yourself in the other person’s shoes if possible.

Do not – bully into bad karma. One of the surprising mistakes I’ve seen inexperienced management make is reneging on agreements and/or contracts. This can mean not delivering an agreed-upon promotion or role change. Another example – cutting an individual’s salary or benefits, which is legally as well as morally reprehensible. Luckily for these managers, most people can’t afford the time or money to hire a lawyer to sue them (and it’s even more difficult in countries with high levels of bureaucracy and corruption), nor do the employees want to risk being labeled a “troublemaker” to future / potential employers. But today word travels quickly, and management ineptitude can quickly find its way to water cooler whispers or LinkedIn messages. Bullying an individual because of a manager’s power or a company’s size is not acceptable – you never know when or how you’ll come across them again (but in my humble opinion – the world is *very* small, especially among VCs and startups). For everything from client development to recruiting to PR, alumni can be a company’s biggest assets – or biggest nightmare. Do not create a nightmare for your company – be legally (and ethically) sound.

Do – Be clear about next steps. If you are (or are not) willing to provide a reference to future employers, say so. Set clear expectations around timeframe, any policies around company IT / resources for the search process, saving files, communications to clients, etc. This can both avoid awkward follow-up conversations as well as reinforce to both parties the importance of risk mitigation (e.g., cyber security). Having IT and/or HR in the room may be a good idea, for those in countries where this is not policy.

TL; DR – Don’t be a black box. Treat everyone with respect. Set up the individual and the company for success.

─ November 19, 2015