Challenging Conversations—How to Tell an Employee It’s Over

The short answer payoff to the issue of how to tell someone it’s over is with clarity and empathy.

The long answer is that getting to this point, particularly with someone who displays a positive attitude and desire to improve—but lacks the ability for the needed work is a process that must be filled with feedback, coaching, and skills training.

However, every performance improvement process must end at a decision point. Either the individual has made it and will continue on with the firm, or, after due diligence and a process steeped in fairness, it’s clear it’s time for them to move on to something outside your firm.

Tough conversations are inherent in a manager’s job. I long ago learned to efficiently and humanely dispatch toxic actors. However, nothing for me and many other managers is more difficult than cutting ties with an individual who displays the right attitude and effort, yet is misplaced in their job.

Beware this Common Trap!

And here’s where my conscience and genuinely nice guy perspective (seriously!) creates a real problem. It’s easy to either create a new role for this positive attitude, high-effort individual—one you perceive fits their abilities—or, to negotiate with peers to place them in a different department. Be careful when you’re considering this move. In most cases, it’s a trap.

Nearly every time I’ve taken this kinder, gentler problem, it’s come around to kick me in the rear. It worked once, and in this case, it had an excellent outcome for the individual and the firm. The other times it was effectively a make-new-work approach that left the rest of the team holding the bag on the original workload. In a few cases, it was not much more than passing the problem off to another manager. The intentions were great, and all parties were in agreement, but some experiments come with too heavy of a cost.

Working Up to The “We’re Not Going Any Further” Conversation

I’m leaving it up to you and your buddies in human resources to ensure you’ve followed a fair, well-documented process designed with the intention of finding a positive outcome. (Note: I despise the use of performance improvement programs for pre-ordained firing conclusions. However, that’s a rant for another day.)

You own the feedback, coaching, and provision of adequate training as part of your obligation here. Half-hearted and half-baked efforts don’t cut it. You need to spend time observing, coaching, and teaching. The discussions must be clear, plentiful, timely, and focused on observed and measurable outcomes.

The Final Conversation Should Never Be a Surprise

As you prepare for a sit-down and talk about continued sub-standard performance, it’s imperative to draw upon your recent observations and examples, as well as to reference the entire sequence of events thus far.

I counsel you to prepare an opening set of sentences to frame the discussion and conclusion up front. It’s imperative to adjust your tone and language to the situation and to avoid confusing the case with the tendency many have to start and end a negative discussion with positive praise. Here’s a sample opener for this difficult conversation:

Bob, we’ve worked together for the past 90 days to identify and support opportunities your performance shortfalls. We’ve monitored the actions and outcomes together, and after considerable effort by all parties, the results haven’t improved sufficiently to merit moving forward. We’re here to talk about your transition out of the organization.

Where’s the Empathy?!

I’m regularly on the receiving end of comments that question whether I have a heart. “Art, that opener is cold. Where’s the empathy and humanity in it?” I  received this direct comment on the statement above in a recent live workshop. The emotion of the comment sounded like outrage.

My very calm response is that extraordinary empathy coupled with genuine support was displayed daily and sometimes hourly during the entire duration of the performance improvement process. I will metaphorically move mountains to strive and help good people help themselves. However, when the conclusion is reached, clarity is the most honest, authentic, respectful means of communication.

Don’t Let Your Discomfort Cloud the Final Discussion

Many a manager has fallen victim to their perceived need to make this easier by surrounding the core message of, “It’s over,” with all manner of praise. That’s a horrible idea, much like the praise sandwich of feedback fame. While offering praise might assuage your conscience a bit, all it does is confuse the receiver, potentially engendering bitterness. It’s understandable for them to wonder, “If I’m so good, why are you firing me?” Skip offering unproductive and frankly, disingenuous praise at this time. If you’ve done your job all along, there’s no need for it.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Letting someone you like go from your organization is indeed personally difficult, and ultimately it wraps up in a challenging conversation. Take the pressure off of yourself and the receiver of this message and speak honestly and clearly, and then help them navigate the transition with their colleagues with grace and dignity.

Art's Signature

 

 

p.s Visit the Challenging Conversations category for more articles on succeeding in the most difficult workplace situations.

 

By |2018-12-04T15:44:34+00:00December 3rd, 2018|Challenging Conversations, First Time Manager Series, Leadership|8 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

8 Comments

  1. Richard Eaton December 4, 2018 at 9:24 am - Reply

    If the reduction in personnel isn’t a person-specific problem, present the budget situation to all the individuals. One of them may be less affected by the reduction in workforce and may offer to move to part or no-time work. Perhaps, they will be on the recall list when the workload increases. Employees who fall into this situation are more receptive to the work changes and likely to be more loyal to the company.

    • Art Petty December 4, 2018 at 12:34 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Richard. While I wasn’t addressing that situation, I agree with you. Thanks for the add-on!

  2. Todd Noebel December 4, 2018 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    While not mentioned here, there is one thing that should never, ever, be said – “It’s nothing personal, it’s just a business decision.”. To the person be terminated, it is extremely personal. They have lost their job, their income, their livelihood. And as an added bonus if they have a family, they get to go home and tell them all about it. So, yeah, it really is personal.

    • Art Petty December 4, 2018 at 12:33 pm - Reply

      I agree, Todd! It fits under my call for empathy. Thanks for reading/commenting!

  3. Victoria December 4, 2018 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    Thanks for addressing the empathy aspect! I am not a supervisor/manager, so when I first sat in on a managerial meeting discussing best practices on letting an employee go, I asked a question about the lack of empathy. A manager pointed out the same thing – you put so much time and effort into the employee at that point you’ve reached the end point.

    • Art Petty December 4, 2018 at 2:13 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Victoria! It’s still essential to do this with grace and allow them to maintain their dignity. Kudos to you for recognizing the empathy issue! Carry that forward if you decided to pursue management–it will serve you well!

  4. Vincent Miholic December 4, 2018 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    A person’s failure is rarely singular, and usually a result of a series of failures by a wide variety of individuals, systems, and processes, sometime saboteurs, etc. Here’s where empathy counts, the parting words might be something of this sort, “If you need me as a reference.” Otherwise all the other machinations are nothing more than legal machinations. Anyone who isn’t willing to seriously help the person succeed and succeed in finding a better job, especially after they exit, seems to me disingenuous posturing at best.

    • Art Petty December 4, 2018 at 7:00 pm - Reply

      I’m a big fan of Deming’s view on the systemic issues so I have an intellectual alignment with the first part of your comment. Nonetheless, sometimes the job to be done moving ahead is different than the one in the past. Fact of life. I share the desire to always help good people. Seems to fit the spirit of the article.

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