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When firing someone, be calm and focus on your decision

Coach's Corner--November 2, 2009

The Client
Name: Carolyn
Age: 38
Title: Owner
Industry: Marketing communication firm
Issue: Firing an underperforming employee
Q. I have an underperforming employee whom I’m going to have to fire. I hate this part of my job, and I’m second-guessing myself. How can I manage this situation, both for her sake and mine?

A. Get your emotions in hand and become clear on where responsibility lies to help you move forward.

The inner game
First, ease your anxiety. Sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Let it help you become calm, and concentrate on having a sense that the right outcome will be achieved. Panicking won’t help anyone; a few deep breaths whenever you start getting worked up will help.

From this calm attitude, identify your emotions about the situation. If you’ve tried to help your employee, you may be angry, frustrated or sad. Pay attention to your feelings’ intensity. Are you angry or furious? Sad or devastated? Assess whether the intensity fits the situation, or if some other dynamic is at play. If you’re taking this as a leadership failure on your part, for example, you’ll be less effective.

At the same time, consider your employee’s perspective. If she hasn’t improved despite constructive feedback, coaching or training, what barriers might she have? It could range from lack of desire to change to a stress-induced paralysis that has her frozen in place. Think about the best possible outcome for her so that she can learn from the experience. The lens of “how would I want this handled if I were being let go” may come in handy.

Finally, take one last look at your history with her. If you’re second-guessing, is it possible that you haven’t given her all of the opportunities that you might have? Not provided direct feedback or invested your time, perhaps? If so, you might reconsider your decision. If you’ve done all you can, then make a commitment to your decision and focus on making it happen.

The outer game
Before you do anything, refresh your memory of formal policies related to termination. This column won’t address legal issues, but it goes without saying that you need to be in compliance with them.

Assuming that you’re confident about your decision, start planning the termination conversation. Try preparing talking points that will guide the conversation. Frame your observations about her performance objectively, perhaps using a “situation-behavior-outcome” structure. Keep the perspective of her responsibility for her career in mind, while also remaining compassionate. It may be emotional, so plan how you’ll remain centered if presented with tears or an angry outburst.

Arrange a confidential space for the conversation, and get organized. Have any paperwork ready, including resources for her for next steps, as appropriate. Also prepare yourself before bringing her in by taking a few minutes to breathe, get centered, and re-anchor yourself in the decision. Your confidence and calm will also help her manage this conversation. To protect both of you, have a third party there as a witness.

The last word
For most leaders, firing employees is one of the worst parts of the job. Strengthen yourself through inner focus and be clear, direct, and respectful with your employee to make it easier for you both.

Liz Reyer, President RCC - Posted November 1, 2009
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