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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Norm Peterson Sitting at the Bar in Cheers
Norm Peterson Sitting at the Bar in Cheers

Mr. Hecht: We want you to be our corporate killer. Norm: The guy who fires people? Mr. Hecht: That's right. You see, we decided that terminating employees puts too much stress on our executives. We think you'll be perfect. Norm: Why me? Mr. Hecht: Because studies have shown that, uh, it's particularly humiliating when you're fired by somebody who's clearly and markedly superior to yourself. And, uh, that just wouldn't be the case with you, Norman. See, uh, you're just an ordinary Joe. As a matter of fact, we, uh, we checked out your home life. You have absolutely nothing anyone could possibly envy or resent. Norm: I'm honored, sir. But I, this, this sounds like a horrible job, frankly. Mr. Hecht: It's a 300% raise and if you don't take it you're fired. Norm: Sir, I will have you know that I cannot be bought... and I cannot be threatened; but you put the two together and I'm your man.

Cheers, Season 3, Episode 21, “The Executive’s Executioner”


Terminating an employee tops my list of “least favorite job responsibilities.” Intellectually I understand that the termination will have a substantial benefit to the organization financially and operationally. On the other hand, it bothers me upending an employee’s life, knowing that my actions for the good of the organization will give this employee a significant amount of stress, uncertainty, and possibly anxiety. The task is slightly easier when removing an employee that consistently underperforms, has no interest in change and is the type of person that crushes the morale of the office or team. The more difficult termination is an enjoyable employee, the one that has an appealing personality. While their demeanor is a plus, the same person may not be contributing to the team or satisfying the tenets of his/her job description. If this employee were unpleasant in addition to deficient, the decision to terminate would come quickly. The likable employee, on the other hand, will often receive additional “chances” and accommodations. We made a mistake at one of the nonprofit’s I ran of trying to accommodate a likable employee through a realignment of duties. This strategy negatively affected the entire team because of the redistribution of responsibilities. We essentially created a new and unintended job. In the end, we made a bigger mess than we cleaned-up and still had to terminate the employee. So what is the proper way to deal with the likable employee termination?

1. Follow the termination process outlined in your handbook/human resource materials. Whether you like an employee or not, termination procedures must be followed to protect the organization and the employee.

2. As discussed in a prior blog post, “Bad News Does Not Get Better with Time.” You show respect to your employees when you are honest, forthright and timely. Waiting until the point of no return to tell an employee that he/she is not meeting your expectations is unfair and denies the employee the opportunity to change. Putting off the inevitable also slows the progress of the organization.

3. The termination discussion should not be cold. Delivering bad news is seldom pleasant. Some managers attempt to shield themselves by becoming emotionless robots reading pre-programmed scripts or staring anywhere but at the employee. It is my experience that it is better to look the employee in the eye, be direct, deliver your message clearly and calmly, answer questions and shake his/her hand on parting. Additionally, the termination discussion should not be one-on-one and should include at least one other appropriate person such as the human resources director or manager of the employee’s team.

All told, all employees need equal treatment. Drawing distinctions based on personalities has implications for the operation of the organization and possible legal ramifications. A likable employee can be a real benefit to an organization but only so long as she/he can perform to the standard.

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