Brandt On Leadership -- Downsizing Dos And Don'ts

A refresher course on tactful firing.

Nobody likes to downsize or fire an employee. Even those who deserve it the most -- for incompetence or theft -- have families who depend upon them and colleagues who will never know or understand the reasons behind the dismissal. So along with feeling the guilt that accompanies denying a family its livelihood, an executive often overhears himself described as a cold-hearted, ruthless SOB. And those are the nice words. Still, even an ugly task such as firing deserves to be done well. Yet during the recent downturn there have been numerous reports of bosses breaking down as they completed downsizings, sobbing and asking for hugs from the very employees they've just let go. These managers -- so focused on their own pain that they're blind to the wounded individuals before them -- have confused self-absorption with sensitivity. They need, in other words, a refresher course on managerial toughness in firing. To wit: Look for another alternative: If you enjoy firing and downsizing, you're a sadist unqualified to lead. If you don't, then you owe it to your employee and to yourself to exhaust every opportunity to avoid the dismissal. Can you put them on a plan to improve performance? Can you reorganize to deploy their talents more effectively? Can you cut other expenses temporarily? Until you've asked yourself these questions (and 50 more like them), you're not ready to dismiss. Suck it up: Don't cry. Don't whimper. Don't sigh excessively. If there's anything worse than being fired, it's having to comfort the jackass who's just put you out of work while he or she blubbers on about the "family of work." Have some dignity and deliver the news matter-of-factly, with a minimum of histrionics. Say the right thing: Get to the point, list your particulars (it's downsizing, it's performance, it's the $200,000 you stole), say you're sorry things ended like this, explain the process for closing out and then shut up. It's hard enough to lose your job; it's even harder to listen to a lengthy dissertation on why. Even more important are four phrases not to say: This is harder for me than it is for you: You're an idiot if you believe this. And you're an even bigger idiot if you say it. The person in front of you just lost their job, while you're going home to a glass of wine and a mortgage you can still make payments on. You just don't fit into our plans anymore: Well, duh. I hope there are no hard feelings: What are you, in 7th grade? Of course there are hard feelings. In all likelihood, this person will never speak to you again and may cross the street to avoid you. His or her spouse will feel even more strongly. Get over yourself. You'll probably be better off: This may be true. It may not. Either way, it's presumptuous and condescending to act as if you know. Offer condolences if warranted, advice on networking if asked. Otherwise, zip it. Don't answer a lot of questions: You'll feel tempted to explain your reasons and to justify why you're not a bad guy. Get this through your skull: To this person, you will always be the bad guy. Don't make it worse by blathering on and maybe inviting a lawsuit. Listen: Give this person a chance to vent, then gently ease him or her out the door. Make sure not to push too hard; do the security-guard-to-the-the-lobby routine only with certified security risks. Remember: You're being watched, and every other employee is imagining him- or herself in the dismissee's shoes. Make sure you look firm but fair. And if you need to cry, for God's sake go into your office and close the door. Because if there's one thing employees respect less than a ruthless, cold-hearted SOB, it's a weak-kneed one. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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