Firing People: The Memories that Won’t Fade

Firing People: The Memories that Won’t Fade

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In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a consultant who’s paid to fire people. Early on we learn about the rhythms of his work: he flies to a new city, the people line up to speak with him, he breaks the news to each one in sincere tones, offers them Kleenex, and hands them a folder with all the details. Perfectly smooth. Time to catch the car to the airport.

That makes for a good story, but most companies require managers to fire their own staff. George Clooney’s just-in-time arrival and easy getaway are nothing like what I’ve experienced.   

Until I fired one or two employees, I talked carelessly about getting rid of people. “Yeah, he’s gotta go, definitely.” “Why is she still here, anyway?” It was easy to fall into that tough-talk mode. But after I’d done it myself, I knew that no matter what the reason for the decision, no matter how well justified or necessary, there was no getting around the fact that I, their manager, would humiliate and traumatize them, take away their current livelihood, and, at least temporarily, deprive them of their self-respect and part of their identity. 

Often I’d known the person I was about to fire for a while and was on decent terms with them. I’d set goals with them, helped them solve problems, given them constructive feedback, and praised their successes. Suddenly, I was going to shatter the security of their regular income and maybe derail their career for good. 

The more you fire people, the more you know what’s coming. There’s no easy way around it. It’s just going to hurt you both.  

HR met with me to set up all the details of the firings. There were sessions about what exactly would be said during the meeting, who would be there (always at least two people, so there’d be a witness), and the exit terms. A post-firing communication plan had to be written and approved so that we knew who we’ll tell, once the deed was done, in what order, and via what medium.

During these weeks of planning, my anxiety level inched up, and the employee knew nothing. It’s like how many couples break up. One person becomes dissatisfied weeks or months before telling the other partner. The unhappiness grows, deepens, and takes a definite shape. As the person summons up the courage to speak, the ragged narrative becomes smoother, crisper, more logical. The dissatisfied partner finally makes the practiced speech to the unsuspecting mate, who’s floored, taken completely by surprise, and needs his or her own weeks or months to process the new reality. 

During all these weeks of planning. I tried to act as natural as I could. I was never sure if my behavior completely fooled the person or not. I felt guilty about what I was going to do, and the secrecy made it worse. 

When we were finally ready, I scheduled a meeting with a bland title like “Touch Base.” I didn’t sleep well, if at all, the night before. Anticipating the pain I was about to inflict kept me both awake and exhausted.

The meeting came at last. The employee arrived, chatting amiably, but then went rigid when they saw the third person there. On cue, but with a dry, raspy voice, I delivered my memorized lines, starting with “I called this meeting to tell you…” and ending with some version of “So you no longer have your job.” Then I paused as the person absorbed what I’d just said, the equivalent of watching someone double over after a surprise punch to the gut. 

Most people were too stunned to get angry. Some started to question why. Others got up a little steam and claimed it was unfair. I’d been well enough prepared not to argue. That must have made it doubly infuriating. I kept my responses brief and safe. 

I tried to steer the conversation to the exit terms—I’d spent all those hours with HR figuring out the details. Usually the person was on overload by that point and couldn’t process what I was saying. They could read the terms later.

The meetings usually lasted no more than 15 minutes, sometimes as few as 5. The person went home, after having to slink back to their office or cubicle—red-faced or in tears—to get their keys and coat. I stayed to cancel their meetings and implement the communication plan, starting at the top of my list and working my way down. Their world was upended that day. I still had my job. 

Inevitably, they avoided all contact with me from then on. Any personal affinity we had was dead. All I could do was check LinkedIn to find out if they’d found a new job. Occasionally I’d run into one of them in town and get a scowl. Sometimes Facebook suggested connecting with one of them and probably suggested me to them, too. Neither of us clicked “Add Friend.” 

When I first agreed to be a manager, I was thinking only about the planning part of the job—I’d always loved to design how work gets done. No one told me all the things I might have to do. I didn’t figure out until later that being a manager was a Faustian bargain. More pay, being in charge, and climbing the corporate ladder came at a price, including the dirty work of cutting off a person’s livelihood when it had to be done.

I remember each firing well. Those meetings where I told people their job was over are as clear to me as if they were yesterday. Recollections of product launch celebrations, new contract wins, or joyful retirement parties are hazy in comparison. They don’t know it, but the people I fired loom large in my memory. Often, to myself, I wish them well.