Blog: Firing someone - the hard task of leadership


Firing someone - the hard task of leadership

One must definitely resist the temptation to be manipulative, trying to take advantage of the situation, or in the words of one very myopic leader “milk the situation for what it is worth”.
Firing someone - the hard task of leadership

Many years ago as a young executive on my first overseas assignment, I had the good luck to observe the Chairman of a Singapore based business group fire a senior leader for lack of performance. It was an amazing exercise in self-restraint, great calmness and compassion combined with great wisdom to do what was in the best interest of the business, and actually have the person thanking him at the end. 

I learnt a great deal that day, and it has stayed with me through over 40+ years of my working career. In the process, I have also shared the process with various colleagues and clients as they all had at some time or the other to perform this really unfortunate task of letting someone go. 

Now as a leadership coach to CEOs, I find the need for this help has greatly increased particularly as we try to overcome the challenges caused by the Coronavirus. Most of my clients are faced with the reality that revenue numbers have shrunk and continue to do so, so cutting down costs of operation has become a necessity that cannot be avoided. People costs particularly in some businesses can be a major part of operation cost and so people will have to be let go.

More with Less

In my discussions with leaders, they have made it clear that they are driving a campaign internally for everyone to realize that productivity has to increase. Much more needs to be achieved with fewer people. This is a really good way to set the ground for the organization to appreciate that there is significant pressure on cash flow and leaders at all levels need to communicate that a new way of thinking about how work gets done is critical for survival.

However, one must definitely resist the temptation to be manipulative, trying to take advantage of the situation, or in the words of one very myopic leader “milk the situation for what it is worth”. A few miserable executives have called me to vent, because they were hitting their heads against the wall where their leaders were not even honoring the previous year performance bonus commitments just because in the present context they can. 

The new reality requires revisiting the business model, looking for new opportunities and doing the very best to stem the rot of declining revenues and profits. However, most businesses guided by their respective Boards, will surely have to contemplate letting go many people that will now become excess to their requirements. The most important issue for leaders to ponder about along with HR heads is the previous appraisal that they have conducted with their employees. If all of them have been given good ratings, and not been counselled to pull up their socks to improve performance, then it is going to be more difficult to let them go now quoting  their performance as not good enough.

The process of Firing

  • Make sure you do it yourself and don’t offload it to others. As the leader, it is your responsibility to participate in this painful exercise, which is going to have such a serious impact on the person, her family, friends and overall sense of self. In many highly litigious cultures, you should always have a witness present, just in case the worst happens. And of course it goes without saying you must have considered all the legal implications from a compliance perspective. 
  • Don’t delay the inevitable. Procrastination does not serve any purpose. And don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point quickly but do it in a very humane way. This means you have to display empathy, not just communicate a decision. For instance, It does not help saying “we decided to cut our workforce by 20% , and I am sorry you made the cut”. This is just another way of saying a la Trump “you are fired!” 
  • This action of yours impacts the person’s life. You have to show compassion, and this requires you to demonstrate how sorry you are to do what you are doing. It is a painful process for you, but you do have a commitment to make the right decisions in the best interest of the business and all stakeholders of the organization.
  • The person sitting in front of you is asking the question “why me?” And you need to have compelling reasons to answer this question fairly. This is where, if you have done your work well, you refer to earlier conversations where you provided feedback, guiding them on what they need to do better to improve their performance and meet expectations. If in the worst case, you have not done so, and you are taking the person by surprise (this should ideally never be the case) provide good reasons, relate it to the business context, the challenges posed by the current crisis, and point them in a better direction for the future. 
  • This difficult feedback given constructively, and with a lot of compassion, should never result in any kind of humiliation. In such a situation the person’s ego is hurt and their self- worth is destroyed. So you have to give them a way out, help them with the best rationale that they can offer their family and friends, because nobody likes the idea of telling people they got laid off because they were dispensable, or are of no value to their organization. 
  • The many years that I worked as a leader at KPMG and EY, I learnt the value of keeping good relationships with our alumnus. These are people who at some point in their career have worked with you and though they have left, are willing to support you and say good things about you. So never burn your bridges. If you are confident that things in the next year or so could get better and you feel you may want to get them back, say so. Obviously, this is only if they are still available.  But don’t make promises you cannot keep. 
  • Many organizations do provide help directly or indirectly to help with placement service. Most also offer good severance packages. If this is so well and good. If not, spend some time discussing potential job opportunities and give advice on what best they might do to get back into employment. Getting HR to help with their CVs, providing references etc are a good way to show that you bear no ill will and are genuine and authentic in the pain you feel as you perform this hard task.
  • Not every individual has the self-control to deal with being let go in a calm and composed manner. Some might get very agitated or angry and say things that could trigger you into a reactive mode that will make matters worse. Practicing Mindfulness is of great help, and keep telling yourself as you take deep breaths, that you want to be graceful, and deal as elegantly as possible to overcome this understandable explosion. 
  • At a personal level, give them access so they can reach out to you anytime to seek guidance or help in any manner. In fact this would be a great time to bring up the subject of being an alumnus and how the value of that should never be underestimated. 
  • One last thing. Employees spend such a large part of their time at work and build lots of good friendships. So when you let go of people you also need to take care of those who are still going to be around. Their emotional needs have to be taken care of as well. Hence make sure that those who are being let go get enough time to say their goodbyes in a way that is supported by the organization. It should never be a situation where one moment your colleague is here, and the next moment she is gone. 

At the heart of every exercise in downsizing is a lot of pain. While business requires that it has to be done, just make sure that the process is fair and dealt with total compassion. The worst thing that can happen is that different people are treated differently because of the leader’s biases, or because there is a chance to exploit, hiding behind the cover of the global crisis. People may forgive you for what you did, but they will never forgive you for how you made them feel.


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Topics: Leadership, Employee Relations, #GuestArticle, #COVID-19

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