Dismissals done with dignity

Learn the reasons for 'termination anxiety'

Worried about firing a troublesome staff member? Well, be grateful you’re not in Uzbekistan. To fire someone there, you have to document several incidents of drunkenness in the workplace or show a consistent pattern of insubordination. That's according to a recent Doing Business survey by the World Bank.

According to the survey, it’s a lot easier to fire someone in New Zealand than in many OECD countries. On a scale of 0 to 100 (with 100 being the most rigid), New Zealand scored 10 for the Difficulty of Firing Index, compared with an OECD average of 26.8.

While firing a someone is easier in most countries than in Uzbekistan, managers are sometimes still reluctant to take action.

Writing on HR.com, Don Phin says there are three reasons for what he calls “termination anxiety". First, there's fear of losing a key employee; second, there's fear of legal action being taken against you; and third, there's fear being seen as the villain.

Phin says the first fear can be dealth with by ensuring the key employee isn’t so key. “Follow the ‘Mack Truck Rule’ — if a Mack Truck ran over any of your employees, make sure that someone else could step in and do their job,” he says.

The second issue can be dealt with by comprehensively documenting employee performance information and by acting quickly to deal with problems.

For fear number three, Phin advises not falling into that trap.

“Act responsibly, maintain the emotional ability to let go and you'll be far less likely to get sucked into an employee drama.”

According to an article in US CIO magazine, knowing how to fire correctly is a skill few IT leaders “have displayed or bothered to cultivate”.

The article says that while people think firing indicates managerial failure, that is not the case.

“Termination is as much a part of management as recruiting, hiring and retention, and executives need to learn the dos and don'ts.”

The first step is to identify problem employees and let them know they’re not performing and giving them 60–120 days to turn their performance around.

During that period all work activity is documented and the record-keeping puts pressure on the employees “in a humane way; by giving them unambiguous goals to shoot for …”

If that doesn’t work, the “termination conversation” follows. The article advises that you make sure you’ve got the nitty gritty details worked out and haven’t overlooked any legal issues. And write down your comments before the meeting so that you’re “able to keep the conversation on track”.

Another approach is taken by SEI Information Technology, one of the organisations featured in the article. SEI tries to talk poor performers into resigning before they are pushed.

“This approach enables employees to leave with their dignity intact since they are the ones deciding their fates. This technique, which Boswell characterises as Psych 101, gains the desired outcome without the pain.”

Another organisation profiled in the article, Conoco, tries everything to avoid firing people. Its HR director, Linda Miller, says "We take laying someone off very seriously, and we'll do anything we can to avoid it at all costs. Even in what some might call their darkest hours, we treat our people with honour and respect."

The article says while this approach might seem like “burying bad apples instead of throwing them out” it is important to be gentle when firing because of the risk of getting a bad reputation — making working with people you’re fired difficult and putting off prospective job candidates.

“IT people love to talk, and bad news travels fast.”

Mills is a Dunedin-based writer. Contact her at kirstin_mills@computerworld.co.nz

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