Being the boss who sends employees packing isn't ever easy, but lots of people in this economy are willing to fire folks--depending on who is on the firing line.
In FINS' informal online survey Sign or Decline, 76% of readers said they'd take their dream job if their first task was to fire their direct report, and 72% said they'd take the job if they had to do all of the firing in the office.
Things changed, however, when the firing became personal. If the job required firing their best friend, only 36% said they'd take the job while 38% said they take the job if they had to fire their mother and 21% said they would sign on if they had to fire their father. Apparently, it's a whole lot easier to fire your mom than your dad or best friend. And it's relatively easy to fire people you hardly know.
The phenomenon of "cognitive dissonance," the tension people try to avoid when what they have to do conflicts with what they believe is right, is exacerbated when the target is someone they are attached to, said Steve Nguyen, a workplace psychologist. "There are a number of experiments that show that people are generally willing to punish strangers but reluctant to do so as familiarity increases," said William Becker, an assistant professor of management at Texas Christian University's Neeley School of Business.
"They often prefer to take the punishment themselves if a family member is involved," Becker said. According to a study conducted by Southern Illinois University in 2008, the more time you've spent with an employee you have to fire, the greater the likelihood you'll experience a higher level of cognitive dissonance over having to terminate them.
Ron Katz, president of Penguin HR Consulting, once had to fire a longtime colleague with whom he regularly ate lunch. "I've managed downsizings of literally hundreds of staff," Katz said. "Why was this one more difficult? I knew most of the people I exited, at least peripherally, but I knew this man's life story, his history and what it would mean to him even more."
"It was harder to dissociate myself from my feelings. I also knew what it would be like for someone over sixty to get another job," Katz said. "He had been with the firm for over 25 years and prided himself on being their employee."
If you do have to tackle a friend-firing, experts suggest a few strategies for managing the situation's biggest difficulties.
Make Sure it's Necessary
If you're the one making the hiring and firing decisions, make sure you do your due diligence as a manager before making the decision.
"Make sure you have done everything by the book," said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas, which specializes in career issues. "Have you given your friend an opportunity to correct mistakes, or discuss issues that he or she is being terminated for?"
It's important to have documented evidence of performance problems as well as evidence that they failed to improve. That shows that the issue is professional. While it might not make the termination easier on either of you, or on your relationship, it may make it easier for you to remain friends after some time has passed.
"We encourage decision makers who have to fire a friend to do it as quickly as possible," said Richard S. Deems, author of "How to Fire Your Friends." "Otherwise it wears on you, and the person who is to be terminated will notice the differences in how you've been reacting and wonder why." You also want to keep your friend from finding out through some other channel -- preferably not the rumor mill -- and help them get back into the job-search game as quickly possible.
Set up a specific time to meet. "We often suggest notifying the person early in the week and early in the day," Deems said. "Friday firings are for wimps." The first weekend after a job loss has been shown to be the hardest, Deems said, so taking care of business early in the week could help soften the blow to your friend's self-esteem.
When you do the deed, don't beat around the bush, Deems said. "Shut the door, no chitchat, just a simple statement: 'Francis, we're going through cost-cutting measures as you're aware, and as difficult as this is for me, our meeting today is to inform you that your employment with ABC Corp. is ended as of today.'" Keep it professional and confidential.
While it might be tempting to say you're just the bearer of bad news, the reality is you need to shoulder the responsibility you've been given by your company. "Don't give excuses or apologies for having to do your job," said Gottsman. "Don't throw anyone else directly under the bus. If you are charged with the task of firing your friend, but there are several other decision makers involved, you can relay that fact without saying 'If it were up to me, I wouldn't be doing this but John and Sara are adamant that they want to get rid of you.'"
Focus on the Business
Keeping yourself focused on the business can help you recognize you're making the right decision. Letting poor performers remain on the team typically has a damaging impact on the overall business. "Managers frequently do not fire the people they are close to even when that person is not performing well," Becker said. "When cuts must be made, managers will most often fire members of out-groups who they do not feel empathetic for."
Susan Steinbrecher, an executive coach and leadership consultant, had to fire her sister years ago when she wasn't growing along with Steinbrecher's growing business. To cushion the blow, Steinbrecher said she'd allow her sister to set her own exit date. The result? Her sister said she wished to stay on for three more years. "It wasn't the smartest business decision," Steinbrecher said in retrospect, but it did help the two preserve their relationship.
Offer Help if You Can
If there is job-search assistance, a severance package, a continuance of health insurance or the chance to apply for other vacant positions within the organization, this is the time to tell them what's available, and provide them with the steps to access it.
If it's in good taste, you can also offer them a letter of recommendation, Gottsman said. "Perhaps your friend is being terminated due to the economy or downsizing, and a letter would be a gesture of goodwill," she said. This won't work for those being fired for poor performance.
Don't Expect Too Much
While it's easy to say that you will have a black-and-white policy about not hiring or working with friends or family members, over time you will likely form personal relationships with professional colleagues. And if you get promoted above those people, you will at some point have to evaluate their performance and could end up having to let them go.
If you do end up having to fire them, experts say you should go in with your eyes wide open, aware that it will more likely than not have a negative impact on your relationship. "In time your friendship may get stronger, but don't assume your friendship will not be affected by the termination," said Gottsman. Deems said he's seen post-firing friendships go both ways. "It takes work from both persons to make it work," he said.
What Would You Do?
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You've just been offered your dream job, but... you have to fire your best friend on the first day.
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Sign or Decline is a series of questions on FINS.com that ask what you would do for your dream job. Since its launch, over 100,000 answers have been received and compiled in our database. Participate in Sign or Decline here.