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BREAKING UP REALLY IS HARD TO DO
If there’s anything more important to a growing business than good hiring, it’s got to be good firing-and there really is such a thing. I’m not talking about exit interviews, which are certainly important, or about careful file documentation, which these days is--no doubt--equally essential. I’m talking about interpersonal damage control both inside the company and with respect to the departing employee.
I’ve become convinced that this is another area where many entrepreneurs constantly kid themselves into believing that what they hope is happening has already happened or will—by some immutable law of nature—happen momentarily and without any effort on their part. Life should only work that way. As they say: “If wishes were Porsches, poor boys would drive.”
As a result of this defensive self-delusion, too many bosses don’t take the initiative or the necessary steps in the firing process to make sure that what needs to get done actually does. For reasons I’ll get to in a moment, being aware of the problem doesn’t necessarily make it easier to take the required actions but, at the very least, next time you’re in the hot seat, you’ll be conscious of the situation and, if you’re really clever, you’ll get someone else to do the dirty deed.
First, the heart of the matter. Entrepreneurs fall in love with just about everyone they hire. This is why so many of us are lousy interviewers. We spend the whole interview pitching ourselves and the company to the new guy or girl and barely give him or her a chance to talk. We want them to be pumped up and excited about our dream. Selling them and seeing their enthusiasm reaffirms our own confidence. Unfortunately, however, in many cases we become emotionally invested in these new employees’ success. In addition, we create unrealistic expectations in our own minds about how committed and dedicated every new employee will be. This perception, by the way, is usually an absolute and inevitable invitation to our own disappointment, even when employees generally work out. These days, for absolute loyalty and an unstinting work ethic, I recommend a good dog.
Second, entrepreneurs hate to see anyone failing because it raises the ugly possibility that similar circumstance might befall them just around the corner. I’ve never met an entrepreneur who wasn’t aggressively insecure. Just listen some time to Steve Ballmer talk about the constant need to keep pushing and fighting for Microsoft to stay number one. I like to say: “The price of leadership is eternal paranoia.”
In any event, as soon as we see someone starting to fail, the typical reaction in many cases is not to pitch in quickly and try to make that person successful. Instead, we keep quiet, we’re painstakingly polite, and we even go out of our way to “stroke” the person when they do something especially right. In fact, as long as the person is “nice,” most people prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. This makes it someone else’s problem and doesn’t make waves or enemies. Now, of course, if the person (in his or her frustration) becomes unpleasant or hostile, the reaction is somewhat different. We start to treat that person like a leper just to be sure that the failure disease is not catching and, furthermore, that when the inevitable ax falls, we’re well out of striking distance.
This type of situation becomes even more complex when it’s clear that the individual’s “failure” is not exactly a substantive issue or a clear-cut performance question—it’s more a subtle matter of attitude and a vague lack of an effective fit within the prevalent corporate culture. These are the hardest kinds of decisions to make, but they’re critical to maintaining the morale of the balance of your employees. And it’s equally critical that you give the departing employee a full and fair explanation of the reasons for his or her termination. That’s where the trouble starts.
I find over and over in entrepreneurial companies that we consistently do a lousy job of handling terminations and an even worse job of explaining them to the remaining troops because:
(a) We take every firing personally (as if each was our own failure in a sense), and we’re somewhat depressed and certainly disappointed;
(b) We want to pretend that, if we ignore the situation, everyone will forget about the person soon enough and get on with their own work;
(c) We assume that everyone in the company clearly knows why the person’s leaving (as if by osmosis) and agrees with our decision; and
(d) We’re content to leave the detailed explanations to the uninformed but highly vocal company grapevine, which is absolutely the worst thing we could possibly do.
All because we hate to talk about or acknowledge the fact that sometimes things just don’t work out.
So what happens? You and the company end up with:
(a) An unhappy ex-employee who may tell his or her side of the story to your customers, to prospective employees or business acquaintances, and to his or her friends who remain at the company;
(b) You have a group of your remaining employees who are at the least confused and maybe concerned about their own positions; and
(c) You’ve created the impression that things around the company happen in arbitrary and inexplicable ways instead of using the situation to send the right message to your troops.
This is not a happy state of affairs.
And, by the way, don’t think that it’s all that easy to compose the right message even when you get around to it. You’ve got to respond to the situation and turn it into an affirmative position without spending the entire time knocking the ex-employee. So what do you do? Let me give you one example.
Shortly after we let a fairly junior employee go, I got a phone call from the individual who had originally referred him to the company asking what happened. I briefly explained the situation and thought that the matter was at an end. A couple of days later, I received a lengthy letter from the ex-employee presenting his “case” and asking for a better explanation from me of why he was let go. Under the circumstances, I felt obliged to reply, and I did so both to him and to all the remaining company employees as well. I didn’t share his private letter with the whole group, but I sent everyone a copy of my reply with a brief cover note. My reply, with the appropriate names deleted, follows.
Thank you for your letter. Please don’t feel any further obligation to “defend” yourself because—as you’ll learn throughout your career—sometimes things just don’t work out regardless of the best intentions of all concerned (and notwithstanding a lot of effort on everyone’s part). No one around here is blaming anyone.
While I don’t want to try to second guess or analyze what was in the minds of various individuals as it relates to the decision to let you go, you’ve asked for a further explanation, which I think I can give you in the abstract because I’ve seen this kind of situation so many times in the past. Let me share these thoughts with you for what they’re worth and so that, hopefully, you’ll keep them in mind going forward.
First, don’t ever confuse politeness with agreement. Very few people like daily confrontations and many, many people think that you “catch more bees with honey” or something like that. Yes, you were complimented for your work. Yes, most of the compliments were sincere and deserved. But, and here’s the rub, in a start-up business, eventually everyone has to pull their own weight (and then some) and managers/supervisors as well as your peers ultimately get very tired of constantly having to either micromanage or stroke someone in order to get the required output. I think you’d find in retrospect that, while what you did was OK, you really didn’t do enough in the course of a day to stand out or to satisfy your supervisors’ expectations.
Second, while you may have been listening to a number of conversations you had with various people, you apparently weren’t hearing what they were saying. I understand this because all of us tend to hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest. The different individuals you worked with and for all believe that they told you in several instances about specific performance issues. But, here again, the bigger issue at this particular time in the life of the company is not whether over time, with more supervision, direction and hand-holding, you could have improved; it’s that the train is leaving the station and no one has the luxury of so much extra time on their hands that they can pick up someone else’s work in addition to their own. This is a very tough area for a new business because we obviously need to carefully train and educate all of our people, and yet we’re already working seven days a week. So I would say that—to a certain extent—you were a victim of bad timing. That’s why I said at the outset that this is less a personal issue and more of a business decision in some respects.
Finally, I’m sorry that complex issues like an individual’s performance and work attitude get reduced to unfortunate shorthand phrases like “not hungry enough,” etc. in conversations with outsiders who want to know “what happened.” Even if it was their business, we all know that work and relationships are much too complicated to be reduced to simple black or white statements or characterizations. I know that almost everyone in their own mind (and certainly you) wants to do a good job that they can be very proud of and for which others will respect them. However, only a select few are crazy enough (as some of us are here) to subject themselves to the constant stress and heartache associated with starting new businesses. Our company is a very fast track run by a workaholic perfectionist. That’s what it takes to succeed against the odds. And it’s simply not the right place for everyone. In fact, it’s entirely possible that you’re simply too nice and well adjusted to work here with a bunch of crazies like us. In any event, we all wish you the best of luck, and we’re sorry it didn’t work out better.