Firing: The Inevitable Test of Leadership

It’s painful to read daily about companies that run a new round of layoffs.

Personally, I feel the same pain I felt every time I fired someone. I felt miserable.

If you care about people, firing kills you as a leader. It’s a sort of personal failure especially if you hire them.

And it never gets easier.

It’s not one of those things that you get better at doing with practice.

No matter how many times you did it before, you always feel a sense of guilt and shame.

But how you do it makes a huge difference for people.

We keep reading about two diametrically opposite ways of firing people. From a careless to compassionate approach.

The consequence of firing is the same but how you fire people shows your real leadership. This is what they will remember about you.

Here are my recommendations:

  • Prepare people for bad news – firing is 100% predictable. You know in advance that might happen. Make sure your people are aware of the current finances, market constraints, and strategies. By doing so, people can expect the worst so they can build a plan B earlier
  • Tell people 1:1 and not via email – It doesn’t matter if you have hundreds or thousands of people to fire. Ask your direct reports to talk with people and explain the reason why firing is necessary.
  • Do it with grace – Firing is already a piece of terrible news. The minimum you should do is show authentic sorrow and compassion. Behind the person you fire, there’s a whole family that will suffer.
  • Give practical support for their next step – Don’t just promise support if they need it. Be proactive in offering references, recommendations, introductions to recruiters/companies, financial support, or benefits.

I’ve never met a leader who didn’t fire someone.

It’s inevitable at some point in your career. But how you do it separates mediocre from world-class leaders.

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