by Matt Villano

Management: How to Fire People

Apr 15, 200116 mins
IT Leadership

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.


– 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.

The common perception seems to be that firing indicates organizational and managerial failure and is therefore too sensitive to discuss. But as Diane Tunick Morello, a vice president of IT business management for Gartner, explains, termination is as much a part of management as recruiting, hiring and retention, and executives need to learn the dos and don’ts.

“Just because this is a sensitive issue doesn’t mean it’s something IT leaders should ignore,” she says from her office in Stamford, Conn. “Firing someone with dignity takes thoughtfulness, sacrifice and skill. It’s never, ever easy, but it can be done well.”

Letting Go

There’s no shortage of expert opinions on firing strategies. For the people doing the firing, however, discussing termination is a lot like talking about hemorrhoids–too personal, too sensitive and too close to home. More than a dozen CIO-level executives declined to participate in this article, explaining that they didn’t feel comfortable discussing such a controversial topic.

But the handful of IT managers who agreed to volunteer their time and opinions on termination all described similar attributes of a framework that is both fair and firm. The methods that these executives have found to work (sometimes by trial and error) dovetail with a body of research on the best ways to show employees the door.

The first step in this framework is to identify problem employees and notify them of their failure to perform. Do this yourself in a one-on-one meeting with the worker–don’t leave it to the human resources office. CIOs who subscribe to this approach say they give struggling employees anywhere between 60 and 120 days to turn performance around. Many companies have instituted special programs designed to drive home the significance of the make-or-break period. Puneet Bhasin, until recently CIO of Livermore, Calif.-based, ran what he calls the Performance Improvement Program to bring fringe employees back from the brink. At Freddie Mac, the government-chartered housing assistance company based in McLean, Va., Senior Vice President of IS Bill Ledman employs a “gap recovery program” that serves a similar purpose.

Programs like these are generally termed progressive or corrective discipline. Central to them are probationary periods for underperforming employees during which all work activity is documented. This record-keeping puts pressure on workers in a humane way; by giving them unambiguous goals to shoot for, progressive discipline demonstrates that the company isn’t out to nail them to the wall. At Freddie Mac, Ledman works with employees on probation to map out goals and objectives, meeting with them weekly to chart progress overall. At, employees had to obtain signatures from their supervisors and HR representatives before they could take on a new task.

Bhasin says that while this requirement was a bit bureaucratic, it helped him keep better tabs on specific employees. In turn, these workers could see a well-delineated road to return to good standing. If they failed to pick up performance by the deadline, however, the documentation built a case for firing. “Once you’ve gone through the process of documenting the issues, everything becomes very straightforward,” he says. “If a person still isn’t working out, the facts you’ve compiled make a termination conversation easier.”

Still, CIOs agree that when an employee has failed to respond to progressive discipline, the termination conversation is by far the most difficult aspect of letting someone go. Bryan Kearney, CIO and vice president of Idaho Power in Boise, Idaho, advises managers to arrange the final meeting carefully. Although Kearney hasn’t had to fire anyone at Idaho Power, at previous jobs he scheduled termination meetings at the start of the day to get it off his plate early, held the meetings in his office rather than the employee’s, had representatives from HR sit in to make sure he covered all the legal bases and prepared the necessary paperwork (termination letter, severance package and so on) beforehand.

Experts say Kearney does it right; with all the nitty-gritty details out of the way, managers can focus on the conversation itself. Here, says John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago-based outplacement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the rule is similar to one everyone learned in kindergarten: Treat employees as you would like them to treat you. During the meeting, the manager should go out of her way to maintain a calm and supportive tone, he says, stating facts simply and plainly and making sure the employee has been terminated in no more than 15 minutes. A meeting that takes longer is a sign that the manager is getting bogged down in a negotiation rather than making a declaration. While the manager should cite the documents that track poor performance, she should not dwell too long or too heavily on such negatives. She should focus instead on the employee’s next step.

“You want to be firm, but you don’t want to belabor the point,” he notes. “Be kind, but not too kind. Remember that your job is to do what’s right for the business.” Challenger recommends that managers write down their comments before the meeting and rehearse them so that they’re able to keep the conversation on track (see “What Do You Mean I’m Fired?” Page 68). Gartner’s Morello recommends that managers not waste time during the termination meeting outlining the components of a severance package but instead instruct the employee to direct all questions to HR.

Hold Your Fire

Not every relationship has to end this way. Some IT managers have developed their own techniques for firing. At CareGroup Healthcare System in Boston, CIO John Halamka combines progressive discipline with an approach he calls “ask-tell-ask.” The interactive strategy is designed to make employees more comfortable with their fate. Getting fired is never easy, but Halamka has found that this method protects employees’ dignity. In mirroring the way physicians are taught to behave in emergency medicine, the ask-tell-ask approach is predicated on the notion that it’s easier to tell someone bad news when they’re already expecting to hear it. For Halamka, an emergency physician who also serves as associate dean of educational technology at Harvard Medical School, the strategy is second nature.

A typical termination at CareGroup begins with a question: “How do you feel about your performance since we put you on probation?” Halamka says that most of the time, a worker will know if he has continued to underachieve and will respond with the understanding that a firing is imminent. At this point, Halamka confirms the suspicion–“Yes, you’re right, you are going to lose your job.” He immediately follows this statement with another question: “How do you feel about this?”

Then, he says, employees generally express sorrow and sadness but not anger; once they have voiced their fears of termination, they are more willing to accept the inevitable. “When prompted appropriately, most folks have the realization that something dire is going to happen,” Halamka says. “For some reason, admitting that realization eliminates a good bit of the initial sting.”

While Halamka’s method is intended to usher people out the door gently, Challenger assails it as a cop-out. The ask-tell-ask approach improperly shifts responsibility from managers to employees, Challenger says, by leaving it to the latter to declare their own poor performance. SEI Information Technology, a high-tech consultancy in Chicago, takes another tack while still seeking to soften the psychological blow of termination. SEI executives try to talk poor performers into resigning before they are fired. Director of Human Resources Rod Boswell says this approach enables employees to leave with their dignity intact since they are the ones deciding their fates. This technique, which Boswell characterizes as Psych 101, gains the desired outcome without the pain. Last year, for example, when a young programmer repeatedly refused to conform to a company dress code, Boswell told the youngster he’d be fired unless he resigned first. The result? The kid jumped ship that day.

Some companies bend over backward to avoid firing people. Conoco CIO Thomas Nicewarner has worked with representatives from the Houston-based energy company’s HR department to develop a retraining and reassignment program that keeps even tightrope-walking workers in the fold. Dubbed HireConoco, the program was launched in the early 1990s as a companywide effort to move employees in danger of termination (whether because of poor performance or layoffs) into new positions elsewhere in the corporation.

Over the years, Conoco has reassigned hundreds of employees. Nicewarner estimates at least 100 of them have come from the IT department. Once an employee is enrolled in HireConoco, he receives sponsorship from a manager familiar with his skills. With the sponsor’s help, the employee works with in-house educators and psychologists to determine a new line of work and a plan of action. This hand-holding is time-consuming but important, says HR Director Linda Miller; by committing to keep someone around, Conoco managers are redoubling their investment in that employee.

HireConoco reflects a corporate culture that places a premium on treating employees well, Miller says. “We take laying someone off very seriously, and we’ll do anything we can to avoid it at all costs. Even in what some might call their darkest hours, we treat our people with honor and respect.”

Although cynics might liken Conoco’s approach to burying bad apples instead of throwing them out, Gartner’s Morello says it’s crucial to be gentle when firing. IT managers who appear heartless or happy when firing risk developing a bad reputation. IT people love to talk, and bad news travels fast. Kearney, the CIO at Idaho Power, notes that he’s worked with the same people at different jobs. If he hadn’t handled terminations with dignity, he says, any one of these employees could have gossiped about the past and undermined his current job.

Kearney points out that notoriety for firing not only alienates you from existing employees, it scares off prospective job candidates as well. The lesson is to do the right thing the first time around. “Everything I do is potentially my reputation, so this isn’t really that tough of a concept to understand,” says Kearney, who learned his leadership skills in the United States Marine Corps. “If you treat people well, if you treat them with dignity and compassion, you shouldn’t have to worry about your reputation.”

It’s not only the manager’s reputation that is at stake. Attorneys caution that executives also risk lawsuits if they don’t handle firing properly. Ken Kirschner, head of the employment law group at Kelley, Drye & Warren in New York City, says that although employers are not legally bound to provide a reason for termination in most states, employees who have been fired tend to press charges if they feel they were embarrassed, persecuted or otherwise treated unfairly during the termination process. Pamela Giannotto, a lawyer in Hackensack, N.J., concurs, saying that most of her clients who file suit alleging wrongful termination seek to “get even” or “to let off steam.” Peter Panken, a partner in the employment and labor division at New York City-based Epstein, Becker & Green, notes that employers need to be particularly careful with the reasons they give for firing people, especially when the employees fit into the protected classes of women, minorities, homosexuals and adults over 40.

“Chances are, a person’s race or sexuality has nothing to do with why you’re firing him or her, but these are sensitive issues, and if employees feel they haven’t been given an appropriate reason, they will play that card,” Panken says. “These questions will most likely be jury questions, and no matter what the facts may be, juries tend to be sympathetic to employees.”

Those Who Remain

Termination doesn’t end when the employee cleans out his desk. With all the attention good companies put to making dismissal more palatable for the employees on their way out, managers often overlook their own feelings and the feelings of the employees who are still around. Firings wreak emotional havoc on everyone in a work group. Statistics show that firing is particularly tough on the terminator–a famous 1998 study conducted at 45 hospitals across the United States indicated that managers double their risk of heart attacks during the week after they give someone the ax.

How can you fire someone with dignity and, at the same time, tend to your own health and the needs of remaining employees? Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of the Five O’Clock Club, a career counseling agency based in New York City, has a one-word answer: communication. Bayer estimates that he’s discussed terminations with more than 500 IT leaders and has found that those who go out of their way to foster discussion and interaction among employees and other managers tend to cope better than those who don’t.

“In light of the traumatic disruption a firing can cause, the people who remain simply need to know everything is going to be OK,” he says. “This step is easy to overlook, yet neglecting it can really destroy the fabric of your organization.”

For Bhasin, the aftermath of termination is the start of healing. Each time he has fired someone–both at and Ryder TRS, where he was CIO and vice president–Bhasin organized “chat sessions” for the people who remained, encouraging them to share their feelings and imploring them to ask questions about why their coworker had to go. These meetings not only helped his employees, they helped Bhasin as well. He says that by listening to people talk openly about their emotions, he was able to face his own sadness and distaste for his actions and ultimately overcome them.

Other managers rely on different methods. Boswell, the HR director at SEI, schedules exit interviews with fired employees so that he can get a better sense of how they regard the termination process. Though some people criticize these interviews as unnecessary, Boswell says the meetings serve some valuable purposes. First, they help HR representatives see how well their system is working. Perhaps more important, Boswell says, by listening to these employees talk about their termination experiences, he becomes a better boss.

“The information we glean in these exit interviews is essential to making the termination process more dignified and sensitive,” he says. “When you’re dealing with people, no matter how you get there, those kinds of improvements are never a bad thing.”

Getting the boot from his first bosses was painful for Inet Financial Services’ Suddreth, but it taught him a lot about how to fire people–and how not to. There are always opportunities for IT leaders to learn by stepping into the shoes of their employees, Suddreth says. He suggests that to understand and prepare for the feelings of abandonment, outrage and incredulity most people feel upon being fired (emotions Suddreth witnessed in January 2001 when Inet laid off most of its staff), managers should sit in on an outplacement counseling session. If that’s not feasible, outplacement experts recommend alternative sources of insight, including role-playing, symposiums and research conducted by agencies like the Five O’Clock Club.

Of course, there’s always the option of experiencing a termination firsthand. While this is the least desirable outcome for most CIOs, Suddreth points out that, frequently, getting fired forces one to rethink a career choice or a life plan. This isn’t necessarily bad. “It’s funny, but I’d say that everything I know about firing, I learned from my personal experience,” he says. “Besides, if I hadn’t gotten fired from that stupid sales job, I would never have gotten into IT.”