Friday, June 8, 2012

Soft Landing for the Terminated

My workplace is experiencing challenging times with severe budget cuts resulting in staff terminations. Staff (some of whom have served over 25 years) are being escorted by HR from the termination meeting, to the desk for their belongings and out the door. There are now complaints about how these terminations were executed as many of these kind-hearted folks were treated as if they were fired for criminal activity. Having terminated an employee before I can personally understand the challenge of sitting them down and telling them they're being let go. Well... for me it was a challenge because of the human/emotional element.

As manager of a customer support team I realized that a team member wasn't carrying his weight anymore and it was affecting team dynamics. I reported this to the CEO who simply said: "well... let him go." Being this was a small company there was no HR department... so I had to wear the HR hat. I hadn't fired anyone before and wasn't prepared, so I searched online for tips on how to let someone go but wasn't much help. It was the late 1990's and not much yet was posted on the subject... (much like when you search for tips on how to conduct an interview: you find tons of results on how to be interviewed but almost nothing on how to conduct one!)

I couldn't sleep the previous night from playing out possible scenarios in my head and wondered if his reaction would be angry. But, the deed was rather quick as a co-worker and I casually sat down with the employee and I gently spoke the typical "I don't think this company is the best fit for you.... Thanks for your time." Then, the challenge for me was to sit there and witness the tears welling up, the shaking hands, and the sighing as the gist of the meeting sunk in while he zipped up his backpack.

I felt horrible... I felt horrible because I was so caught up in my own stress that I completely ignored the needs of the person I just terminated. (I thought he'd be angry and it didn't occur to me that he'd be hurt.) To be honest, I can see why my current workplace is taking the clinical approach: if you rely on the process then the human element has less an impact on the one doing the deed. But, the focus ought to be on the person we're letting go. Suzanne Rumsey points out that "Leaders over-focused on process and process metrics may signal a lack of humanity, but what I really think it signals is a lack of organizational and personal courage:  courage to slow down and engage a person at the most basic human level – the emotional one."

Rumsey's point hits the nail on the head. If we know lives are being impacted by terminations we can make the tossing-out experience less frightening for them.  And we can offer them a softer landing when we practice this personal courage... this “courage to slow down and engage a person at the most basic human level – the emotional one.”

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