Management: How to Fire People

Firing people means more than simply saying "hit the highway"...or at least it should. Done correctly, both you and the fired should leave with your dignity intact.

By Matt Villano
Sun, April 15, 2001

- Understand why firing correctly is important
- Identify what it takes to fire with dignity
- Learn how to cope with the personal stress of letting people go

Greg Suddreth was 22 years old when he got sacked. Fresh out of college, he was working as a sales associate for a wine distributor just outside Chicago. For roughly $40,000 a year, Suddreth drove up and down Interstate 74 in his 1991 Hyundai Sonata, selling cases of wine to liquor stores 35 hours a week. But no matter how hard he tried, he could never meet his quota. Finally, on a bitterly cold January evening, the bosses called him into a back office. Before Suddreth could even sit down, one boss started yelling, blaming him for sabotaging profits. He questioned Suddreth’s work ethic. He wondered aloud how the youngster thought he would ever be able to hold down a "real job" in sales. Then he said, "You’re fired."

The other supervisor remained silent throughout, and when his colleague was finished, he patted Suddreth on the back, offered a few words of encouragement and showed him the door. There was no severance or exit interview.

"I’ll never forget the way I felt that day," Suddreth, now 33, says. "In five minutes, they completely destroyed my self-esteem. Even the nicer guy made me feel like crap. That was no way to let someone go."

The bitter memory of that January day has inspired Suddreth to approach firing his own people with compassion, honesty and dignity, he says. In 1997, as IT manager for Alsip, Ill.-based International Gateway Communications, he had to fire a technician for performance issues. Along with the ax, he also offered the man outplacement counseling, a hefty severance package and references for future employment. Last year, as director of IT for in Schaumburg, Ill., Suddreth spent a week finding new jobs for three people he was forced to lay off. Today, as CTO of Inet Financial Services in Northbrook, Ill., Suddreth hasn’t had to fire anyone, but he understands the inevitable, and he vows that he’s ready for the task.

This might be more than most CIOs can say. In the tight job market of the past several years, knowing how to fire correctly is a skill few IT leaders have displayed or bothered to cultivate. Yet it’s important--to those who stay as well as those who go. And with the economy tanking, more will be going every day. Fire the right way and people leave your organization sad but not enraged. Screw it up and you run the risks of burning bridges, alienating those who stay and hampering your ability to make future hires.

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