No one likes to lay people off. It’s upsetting, painful, and even traumatic—and not just for the person losing their job. Unfortunately, letting people go is part of being a leader—and, as many companies ramp up layoffs, it’s a task you might have to face sooner rather than later.
There’s no such thing as a completely painless firing or layoff—but Gary Harpst, who’s been a CEO for 40 years, says there are things you can do to make the exit more peaceful for both parties. And, surprisingly, he says leaders should start laying the groundwork up front.
“The secret to a peaceful exit has almost nothing to do with the actual firing itself,” says Harpst, author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. It’s all the things you do in the beginning and along the way that make a difference.
“The key is being open, honest, and clear about expectations from the minute the employee is offered the job,” he says. “When we fudge the truth, or let people assume things, or slide on holding them accountable, we get into trouble. And that trouble can end in a painful layoff.”
Harpst offers a few tips:
1. Have hard conversations before you hire someone.
Harpst suggests when you’re ready to hire someone, you sit them down and say: “I’d like to hire you, and you’d like to work here. Neither of us knows if this is going to work out. In two years, you may begin to think we are not a good fit for you. On the other hand, we may begin to think the same thing.
“Let’s be open with each other and see if there are ways to make things work. No surprises. And if either of us decides it is not going to work, let’s agree to partner together on a good exit. If you are leaving us, give us as much advance notice as you can so we can find someone else. We will do the same for you—give you plenty of time to find the next job and even help you with contacts if we can. Let’s agree up front that we are going to support each other.”
“This is a two-way conversation,” says Harpst. “After all, the new hire also doesn’t know if they’re going to be satisfied with the job. Ask them to agree with you that, if it gets to that point, you’ll tell each other the truth. Openness and honesty create a better situation for both people. It lays the groundwork for mutual trust going forward.”
2. Clearly define expectations and equip employees with the resources to meet them.
Make sure they know what you expect them to do and when they’re expected to do it. Ask them to repeat back what they heard so you’re on the same page. This sets them up for success from the beginning. Lack of clarity is a huge driver of failure. “This is also a good opportunity to create buy-in,” says Harpst. “Ask them if these expectations are doable, and ensure they agree with the plan. You might also point out training or other resources that can help.”
3. Schedule regular face-to-face check-ins early on.
Sometimes we tend to hire someone and kind of let them sink or swim. Don’t. Check-in on a regular basis. Leaders must view caring about people, as not a means to an end, but as worthwhile. Build the kind of relationship where you know if there are any issues outside of work weighing on their mind and see if there is anything you can do to help. Also, hold them accountable if they drop the ball on something.
“Leaders must view caring about people, as not a means to an end, but as worthwhile.”
“These check-ins keep people on track, but they also build the bedrock of a solid relationship,” says Harpst. “They help you communicate that you do care about the person. They also create psychological safety and build trust, because you’re showing them again and again that you want to hear the truth. Even if things don’t work out, you’ll be glad you built this trust as it will make the exit easier on both of you.”
4. Don’t let problems slide.
Good leaders are compassionate, which can make it difficult to let people go. When we care about people, we naturally want to give them another chance. Sometimes, though, “another chance” crosses the line into enabling. While kindness serves us well most of the time, there are some instances where we must prioritize the success of the team and remember that there are other people counting on us to keep things running smoothly.
Communicate early and often when things aren’t going well. Ask the other party to do the same. You both want ample notice if you need to make a shift. The last thing you want to do is surprise the person with bad news. Make sure they can see this coming, and when it’s time to part ways, they’ll remember the warnings you gave along the way.
5. Make sure honest feedback and accountability are a two-way street.
You’re telling the employee the truth, but, just as important, be clear that you want the truth from them. By encouraging feedback, you may discover there’s a deeper organizational problem driving their poor performance or something you could do better to support their success. Likewise, don’t just hold them accountable. Hold yourself accountable, too, and admit it when you mess up.
“Don’t let them shift blame onto your shoulders and escape accountability for their own actions, but also make sure you aren’t doing that either,” says Harpst.
Finally, says Harpst, you might want to offer some tough love on the way out the door. One of the kindest things you can do in this circumstance is to be truthful about why things didn’t work out. Be clear that this conversation does not change your decision to let them go but is about your helping them to be more successful in their next role.
“You might be surprised by how well people take this kind of ‘exit feedback,’” says Harpst. “People get defensive defending their job but are sometimes more willing to honestly listen once the decision has been made. Just make it clear that you have their best interests at heart. People will be grateful that you cared enough to speak up. Never burn bridges in relationships. Treat people with integrity regardless of how they treat you.”
Gary Harpst is the author of Built to Beat Chaos: Biblical Wisdom for Leading Yourself and Others. He is the founder and CEO of LeadFirst. LeadFirst was founded in 2000 (as Six Disciplines) with a mission of building effective leaders and helping small and mid-size companies manage change, grow, and execute. Having been a CEO for 40 years, Gary has experienced the challenges of every aspect of business ownership, from start-up to rapid growth to acquiring other companies to being acquired. (Solomon Software, which he co-founded, was purchased by Great Plains and ultimately sold to Microsoft.) He is a keynote speaker, writer, and teacher whose areas of focus include leadership, business, and the integration of faith at work. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 of the nation’s top thought-leaders in management and leadership by Leadership Excellence magazine. In addition to Built to Beat Chaos, he has written two other books: Six Disciplines for Excellence and Execution Revolution. Learn more at leadfirst.ai.
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