Kind. Swift. Clear.
Three key points to remember the next time you’re responsible for an imperative leadership responsibility. We’ve created lots of euphemisms for it:
- Terminating their employment.
- Laying them off.
- Exiting them.
- Or as it was once called, an old-fashioned firing.
Generally, the circumstance that leads to the termination is unimportant. Not irrelevant, but generally unimportant. The conversation should include some common tenets.
Kind. Swift. Clear.
Kind: Regardless of the circumstance, bad news (the ultimate professional bad news, in fact) can be delivered with kindness and compassion. I’ve facilitated many terminations, all for good reasons, but delivered the message with courtesy and respect. No leader wants to destroy someone’s self-esteem or make matters worse than they are for the affected person. Truth be told, I’ve held a few termination discussions where I was privately relieved they were leaving the organization but delivered the message sincerely and respectfully.
Swift: The news should be communicated in the first few sentences that come out of your mouth. It’s inhumane to draw out any termination conversation with delay or hesitation. I recommend the opening be deliberate. “Tom, I have a difficult topic to discuss with you today, and I need to tell you that a decision has been made to end your employment. The decision is final, and today is your last day. I am very willing to talk about any questions you have, but I want to reiterate that the decision is final. We’re committed to making your departure today as respectful as possible.”
Obviously, every culture differs in your exiting process and what happens before and after this discussion. But the principle of opening with the news and not delaying the message is consistent.
Clear: As important as Kind and Swift, be extraordinarily clear. If the decision is final, don’t leave a door open or give someone false hope. You can be both clear and kind. In the midst of your words, everyone is reacting internally differently. Some will be embarrassed; that’s understandable. Some angry and furious. Others scared and frozen. People are justifiably racing through dozens of thoughts from “How do I tell my spouse?” to “How will I pay next month’s bills?” to wondering if they can convince you to reconsider.
These are all legitimate reactions. Clarity about the decision-making process, who was involved, any documentation, and perhaps most humanely, what happens next is vital. If there are no other employment options available to them within the organization, make that abundantly clear so the colleague can move to a mindset of understanding what’s now behind them, and begin to think about what’s in front of them.
It’s arguably the worst part of leadership, and similarly, one of the most important responsibilities you’ll ever be faced with.
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