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Manager Series, Part 7: Telling Your Team Someone Was Fired

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Manager Series, Part 7: Telling Your Team Someone Was Fired

This is the last of a 7-part series on management best practices, tips and tricks, and what not to do.
Part 1 starts with the basics of being in management, and how to be a good manager.
Part 2 teaches you how to conduct a good employee performance evaluation.
Part 3 covers getting good job performance from your employees.
Part 4 gives you ways to manage difficult employee conversations.
Part 5 helps you decide whether it’s time to fire someone.
Part 6 shows you how to fire someone properly.


How to Tell Your Team That a Colleague Was Fired

After a lot of time spent documenting, having unproductive conversations, and soul-searching, you’ve done the deed. You honestly, quickly, and kindly let someone know that their time with your organization is over. And it may have been one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done, but you did it.

Word of these things travels at roughly the speed of high-school relationship gossip, so it’s likely that your remaining employees already know, or suspect, and are probably somewhere between “somewhat concerned but not really surprised” and “totally freaked out.”

What’s important to remember here is that no matter how nonchalant your team members may be in their outward reactions, their inner thoughts are likely anything but calm. It’s a paradox that happens almost every time, and here’s how it plays out.

Part 1: Your team members almost always know someone is underperforming before the manager (aka you) knows. Those on your team who are high performers may even have been waiting for this low performer to be dismissed and wondering why it took you so long.

Part 2: Even though the above is true, people still get really scared when someone actually gets fired.

Why? It’s simple. You brought out your figurative great big flaming sword and chopped someone’s figurative head off. You made it really bright and clear and obvious that you have the power to make someone unable to pay their bills next month. And your team has just witnessed the huge shift in emotion from wishing someone would get fired to watching them actually get marched out the door.

When it happens, it’s intimidating. Even for the Employee of Every Month.

And it’s not just the firing itself that can completely change the dynamic of your team. Your behavior after the fact will also have a huge impact on how your employees operate moving forward and can include everything from a much-needed boost in morale and productivity to a mass exit. Here’s how each one happens.

How to Get Your Entire Team to Quit (Or, What Not to Do)
Let’s assume, first, that you want to do the *worst job possible*, and that you have a goal of destroying your team’s morale and driving them to update their resumes ASAP. Your speech might go a little like this:

“Hey! Everybody get over here. Look, I just fired Pat. And damn, that was hard! I need a drink. I mean, wow, he cried SO much. And all this stuff about having to pull his kids out of school. Whew. I guess Pat should’ve thought about his KIDS before he SCREWED UP THE ACME ACCOUNT. And let this be a LESSON for each of you, or you’ll end up just like Pat. Do you understand?”

It should be obvious that this is a terrible thing to say to your team after one of their own has been let go. But what might not be so clear is the why:

This type of speech falls into 3 traps. One, you as the manager sought comfort and reassurance from your team. This is not even close to their job — you’re asking them to comfort you for firing their peer? Just no.

Two, you shared sensitive and personal details about the process to your team members. The only lesson this teaches them is that if you’re willing to do it once, you’ll likely do it when they leave, too.

Three, you used the opportunity to threaten other jobs. This never increases productivity, but it does increase fear by quite a bit.

All 3 of these are horrible (like, Office Space–level horrible) ways to tell your team that a colleague was fired, and it’s about more than just bad form. It also shows your best employees that you’re a weak, out-of-control manager and that they should find a better one elsewhere.

How to Rally the Rest of Your Team (Or, Do This Instead)
If you want to turn an unfortunate situation into one that’s instead an opportunity to help motivate and grow your team, your talk should look more like this:

“Listen up team, I’ve got some news. You probably already know, but to share it, I decided to let Pat go. I know some of you are surprised, so I’ll take this as an opportunity to remind you all that performance improvement plans are confidential, and that nobody is ever let go without going through a multi-step process to get them to perform at the required level.

What I want to tell you now is that I very much value the high quality of the work this team does, and I understand it takes every member of the team operating at a high level to succeed. If anybody has any questions about our performance improvement process, or how you’re doing, please email or ping me, or we can talk about it at your next 1:1. Any questions?”

This approach includes 3 ingredients of a strong response.

One, you owned your decision. Deciding to fire an underperformer is your job as a manager, and yours alone. Doing it is you doing your job correctly.

Two, you offered reassurance in your reminder that nobody gets fired “out of the blue” while still keeping any discipline or other efforts that were made to improve things confidential.

Three, you took the time to thank your team for their high level of effort and accomplishment. You did this to improve the team as a whole, which means those who remain are high performers. They understand they need to continue to perform in order to stay, without you having to spell it out.

Bottom line? The way you handle the aftermath of a firing can either lead to a flurry of calls to recruiters or instead serve as a reminder that, as the boss, you’re going to do what is in the best interest of the team.

And this leads us into a major manager topic — making changes in how your team does their jobs. Managers love to change things. Employees hate changes. Can the 2 sides ever get along?

Related content:
Manager Series, Part 1: What No One Ever Told You About Being a Manager
Manager Series, Part 2: How to Write an Employee Performance Review
Manager Series, Part 3: How to Get Your Employees to Give You What You Need
Manager Series, Part 4: Techniques for Managing Challenging Conversations
Manager Series, Part 5: Reasons to Fire an Employee
Manager Series, Part 6: How to Fire Someone

Your team has just witnessed the huge shift in emotion from wishing someone would get fired to watching them actually get marched out the door.

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