Mike is a member of the Human Resources Department in a multinational company and has been tasked with terminating the employment of an employee. This was the first time that he had been required to do this task and he felt sure that he could handle it easily, elegantly and professionally. He made sure that he had all the relevant HR documentation and that it was right up-to-date. He called the employee into his office and, in an attempt to prepare the ground, started with a little bit of small talk as a way to ease into the difficult part of the conversation. After a couple of minutes, he started into his prepared speech by explaining the situation of the organization, the effects of the current economic situation and various other factors that had led to their meeting. Before reaching the part of the conversation where he actually told the person that their services were no longer required by the organization, the employee had anticipated what was coming and started weeping softly while appearing to physically deflate into the chair. Mike immediately felt bad, offered some tissues and that was when he lost control of the situation: the employee started using every emotional trick to avoid what was coming – they started by talking about the stress and strain of being the only breadwinner in the family; the number of people who depended on them for food and shelter; their old and frail parents who needed constant care and the ongoing medical bills and so on. Finally, Mike could take no more and said that he would see what could be done and would contact the employee later. You can imagine the rocket he got from his boss when he told him that the task had not been done!
Once Mike left his bosses office, he sat down and did a detailed self-analysis of what had happened and what he could learn, and apply, from this experience and this is what he discovered:
One main learning point was that it appears that most people have an idea when the possibility of their dismissal is high in their organization and that they might be in line for the axe so they often have little compunction in preparing a detailed strategy to delay or avoid the event.
Points to remember with a straightforward dismissal:
1. Always be well prepared for the dismissal. Have all the relevant data and documents available for the meeting. If you have a “Critical Incidence Log” available, make a copy of the relevant pages (See this BLOG article) so that they can be shown, if necessary, to the employee.
2. The decision has been made, often by a person in a more senior position, and you have been chosen to carry it out. It is a difficult task and is usually only given to someone perceived as been able to carry it out professionally and elegantly.
3. It often boils down to a simple choice: you dismiss the person or both of you are out. If the person tasked with the dismissal in unable to carry out the task, it can adversely affect the career prospects of the person and, in the worst of cases, lead to their demotion or even dismissal.
4. This particular activity is NOT a discussion. It is NOT (normally) a negotiation. It IS the communication of one simple message. The objective of the meeting is clear: To ensure that the employee understands that they are no longer employed by the organization. The person should not get involved in a discussion with the employee as this tends to give them the hope of a reprieve. It must be noted that different “rules” apply if a “Negotiated Exit” negotiation is being conducted.
5. Psychologically, little or no lead in is much better – Get straight to the point and give the bad news first and then whatever “good” news exists. This structure uses the power of the Primacy & Recency effect: With the primacy effect, people tend to remember the first time more than repeated events &/or the beginning of an event more than the central part. The Recency effect indicates that people tend to remember the last time or piece of information more clearly than that done or given beforehand. The “good” news might include more favourable terms and conditions of separation, assistance with a new job search, a written reference or anything that the organization offers in terms of post dismissal support.
6 Many people feel that it is better to empathize with the person. The problem with empathy is that it implies that one shares the same feelings and emotions of the other person. When I have to fire someone, I do NOT want empathy which could prevent me from carrying out the task at hand. I need to understand how the person probably feels but I look for neutrality: I have a task to perform and have to do it ethically & professionally.
7. Stages in the dismissal interview:
The initial response of the employee is usually highly emotional and follows the “The five stages of grief” developed by Kubler-Ross (Kübler-Ross, E. (1969)). There is usually a gradual shift from the emotional responses to a calmer, more logical state of mind where rational conversation is possible.
The stages that Kubler-Ross posits are as follows:
– Shock / Denial: There are usually acute and observable changes in both the employee’s verbal and nonverbal communication, etc. There may be a short silence while the person mentally processes what they have heard, they often slump down in the chair and, once it has sunk in, start using language like “It’s a mistake!”, “You can’t do this to me!” or “No! No! No!”, “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”.
The best way to respond to this stage is to say nothing and let them show their feelings and emotions. It is often useful for the HR person to identify and name the emotions being shown by the employee and to state that they understand them. However, do not start arguing with them or trying to soften the news.
– Anger / fear: Due to the complex physiological response involving adrenaline, cortisol and testosterone the employee often gets increasingly more agitated / angry (raised voice, aggressive body language (facial expression, posture, orientation, proximity and gestures, etc.), which may make them appear aggressive and/or threatening. Their language often takes the form of “How could you do this to me?” “I’ve dedicated my life to this organization!”, “What’s going to happen to my family?”, and so forth.
It is vital that the H.R. person does NOT reflect the employee’s verbal or nonverbal communication in any way. For more information about how to deal with angry people, please see the links at the end of this post.
– Rationalization / Bargaining: This stage involves the employee starting to accept the situation and trying to find rational reasons, for them, for what has happened: the current economic climate; the sales of the organization, etc. This is shown by the use of language such as “I should have expected it!”, “I know the company has problems”, etc. There is frequently a stage where the employee attempts to negotiate a delay in the dismissal: “If I work longer hours… / take less pay / work part-time, would that change the situation?” etc.
Since this stage seems to be relatively short, it is generally better to let the person work through the elements by themselves and not say anything. Frequently, the person will then move on to the next stage when THEY are ready to deal with it.
– Depression: Language: “What am I going to do now?”, “I feel totally useless!” “I should have studied more when I had the chance.”, “ ”It always happens to people like me!”, etc. This is often shown as the verbal expression of feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. This is usually accompanied by slower speech and body movements.
This stage often lasts quite a short time as this is when & where the employee shows that they have started accepting the new situation and all that it implies.
– Acceptance: This is the stage where the employee has accepted the situation and is now in a more rational state of mind as shown by the uses of phrases like: “O.K., If I have to go, what is the next step?”.
This is where the HR person should start talking about the technical details of the dismissal.
If relevant or appropriate, we could add two additional steps to the last stage, in this context, where the HR rep and the employee develop:
– A detailed action plan: This may include outplacement services or other help to adjust to the new situation. “The company will help you to…”
– The employee agrees to initiate the first steps contained in the action plan. “You have an appointment at 9:00h with an organization who will provide you with outplacement support. Will you go?”
Other points to bear in mind:
– Choose a place which is isolated, calm, comfortable, enclosed.
– Make sure that you will not be interrupted: people, phone calls, etc.
– Sit down before saying anything and avoid conflictive postures.
– Sit on one side of the person:
– If they are right-handed, sit on their left-hand side.
– If they are left-handed, sit on their right-hand side.
– If you sit on the other side of the table it can be subconsciously perceived as a conflictive situation where each person is “entrenched” behind the table.
– Closely observe their nonverbal communication: If you can change their negative body language (posture, etc.), they will change their mind: if they are sitting in a closed, defensive posture do something to change this posture – offer them a sweet or glass of water, etc.
– Avoid language like:
– Try (Indicates a lack of commitment): It is much better to use “I will do what I can…”
– Negative orders: “Don’t worry!”. Use positive language instead – “Trust us to…”, etc. (The human brain, in order to understand a negative order, must first do the positive version)
– Firing someone is a difficult task to perform elegantly. It requires the HR person to appear to be cold-hearted or cruel. However, it is a fact of life that this occurs, life is often unkind and someone has to do this specific task.
– If the person doing the firing knows how the employee is probably going to react, it makes it easier to be prepared to respond appropriately for each step/reaction during the process.
– It is vital that person doing the firing is able to remain emotionally disassociated from the task they are performing. Once they become emotionally involved, the task becomes much harder.
Your feedback on this article would be appreciated.
– Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-04015-9
– Photo: Forbes magazine. Pssst: Want To Know If You’re About To Be Fired? 2013/19/04
© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., Madrid, Spain, 15th December, 2014.