On Firing Someone


As kids, we were sometimes allowed to watch Saturday cartoons.  Poor George Jetson was always getting fired.

It’s no joke to fire someone.  And there’s a right way to let someone leave.

Start here:  allow people to leave with dignity.

When talking about why someone is leaving, have some standard, culturally resonant language about moving on, a communication template for use with employees and clients.

Keep it simple.  Don’t use words like “fired” or “terminated.”  Don’t blame, don’t address performance.  Wish people well on their way out the door.

And then, make this a standard practice.   Use it every time.   Anything more is nobody’s business.

In recent social conversation, a tech/startup denizen told me she had been coached to be “honest” about firing someone; this honesty was owed to other prospective employers.

Not recommended.  You may be seen to be disparaging your former employee, or to be harming his ability to make a living.  Beyond that sheer badness, your “honesty” could return to your firm as a threat of legal action.  It’s time consuming, and can be expensive.  This won’t serve your own company or investors.

Clients need to know how you’ll continue to serve them.   Not why someone left.

Internally, your people are smart.  It’s no secret when someone didn’t fit, or wasn’t doing his job.  People might even ask, “What took you so long?”

They’ll be watching you, and thinking, what happens when I leave?

How you treat people builds and reflects your culture.  Unless your core values include gossip or disparagement, don’t gossip or disparage.

When you fire someone publicly, kick them to the curb, and then take to media to defend your action, guess what?  You look like a lousy manager.

Who wants to work for a lousy manager?

An employment lawyer recently told me that we should never fire people — even for cause.  Instead, we should have a severance plan in place that offers a graceful exit to anyone who needs to leave.  Check with your own attorney on that one.

Why you fire someone can be far less relevant than how you do it, especially when the employee pursues legal action.

Photo:  Pointy, by A National Acrobat, via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

(5/19 update: I rarely edit a published post.  And did so this morning, after a journo friend asked why I had buried the lede.   It’s good to have friends!   Also good to check my own archives, as I realize I wrote a quite similar post in 2007.  Good management hygiene:  it’s evergreen.)

HR Needs Teeth


I cut my “people management” teeth leading turnaround situations.  This included learning — a lot — from some truly great HR pros.   People with vast experience who mentored and taught me.

Back in the day, HR wasn’t always great.

Yet even good people could use HR tools and practices to support their people and create a good environment.

Over the last 20 years, Corporate America has sliced, diced, outsourced, and automated a once-holistic function.

Yes, it was once imperfect.  Today, in large firms, HR struggles to be even good.*   It’s toothless.

Growing firms today have the opportunity to re-create this function.  The Netflix culture deck is what can happen when you have great HR in the house.

An HR lead is a business partner, who will advance your business strategy and strengthen your culture.  They’re leaders of particular expertise and experience.

And they wear a few hats beyond Recruiter or Tax Form Wrangler.

Traffic Engineer.  The world is a safer place because we have civil engineers.  Using lights, crosswalks and agreement about which lane to drive in, they create process.

Your HR lead can create repeatable process for the traffic flows of hiring, and managing people and performance.   Early stage HR process can use whiteboards and spreadsheets.   Later, you’ll need more.  A solid HR lead knows when it’s time to scale.

Judge Advocates.  It’s complicated to comply with the law.   Getting it right can save your time, money, and reputation.

Unlike military Judge Advocates, your HR lead needn’t be an attorney.   They will build practices to keep you in line with the law, and advise you when your counsel should hear about a people issue.

Conscience Check.   You wish your employees would tell you when something’s out of whack.  They may not.   And you may not have time — or the experience — to really hear them.

Like a mediator, a strong HR lead will serve up checks and balances that support working in alignment with your values.

This may involve process — or simply listening when there’s an issue.  When someone is listening, you can respond before your people take their concerns online.   Or out the door.

I’ll reach out to a few HR pros to see if they’ll comment, because there’s more to say about doing this this leadership role right.

When you’re 5 people around a table, you better not need HR.   If you’re a 20 person “mom and pop”, you can do a lot yourself, backed up by your accountant and attorney.

If you have bigger ambitions, talk to other founders, mentors.  And don’t forget your own people!

Go online and see what investment pros like Fred Wilson and Mark Suster think.

Once you’ve been sold, build things right.  To be effective, HR has to have teeth.

The right person for the role is your ally, but not your Yes Person.  If you’re fairly new to managing, the right partner is someone with more experience than you have.

Someone who will tell you, “You can’t do that.”   Because it’s not legal.   Or just because it’s not smart.

And then, you’ll listen.  (And like I did, you’ll learn.)

To really give the role some teeth, help your HR lead build relationships with people who influence you and your co-founders — coaches, mentors, or the right kind of board members.   And give them access to them.

Because sometimes, you may be the problem.

* Many fine people work in these roles.  I’m distressed about the devolution of the function itself.  In large firms, it’s too often vendor management and compliance.  It’s hard for me to shut up about this.   Instead, check Peter Cappelli.

And check the sort-of preachy NY Times article on HR, published while I was on the nth revision of this post.  Scooped!

Photo:  Legoland Dragon, by drmama via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.