Is There a Right Way to Fire Someone?

Firing people is a natural part of business. Is there a right way to do it?
fire someone

There’s a scene in the 2011 movie “Moneyball” — based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling book about Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane and his pioneering use of analytics in Major League Baseball — where Beane (played by Brad Pitt) instructs Assistant GM Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) on how to let a player know he’s being cut, traded or sent down to the minor leagues.

It’s one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies. In the scene, Beane tells Brand that he has to learn how to break bad news to a player. As practice, Beane asks Brand to pretend he’s telling him he’s been cut from the team. Brand goes into an uncomfortable, long-winded explanation on why Beane is being cut, in the process offering Beane a description of the complicated nature of the situation while also showing his own emotional distress over having to deliver the bad news.

About halfway through Brand’s simulated exercise, Beane cuts him off. Stop it. Just deliver it to him straight, without emotion, he says. Billy, you’ve been cut from the team; I’m sorry it didn’t work out; here’s the phone number for you to call to handle the details.

I’ve always wondered if there is a best practice when it comes to firing people. Many business leaders may find Beane’s approach the right one. Don’t pepper too much over the details. Just give it to them straight and get it over with. There’s no room for emotion in business. It’s not personal; it’s business.

The problem with this approach, in my opinion, is that for the person being fired, it often is more personal than business. Most people need their job to earn a living. Learning that the income is about to stop is going to be a stressful experience. Additionally, on a personal level, learning that you did something wrong or are no longer capable of doing a job is confidence taxing.

Maybe the “Moneyball” approach works when you’re dealing with professional athletes who earn millions of dollars a year and are likely prepared for the volatile nature of their employment in professional sports. But in most employment circumstances, that isn’t the case.

On the other hand, I can understand the straight-talk approach from the other side. Because these decisions and conversations are difficult, why not just rip the Band-Aid off and get it over with? It certainly will make it easier for the person doing the firing. At the same time, maybe being straight with the conversation is emblematic of the company’s culture.

In my view, there’s likely a middle approach that business leaders should consider. Being direct and straight with the person you’re firing is likely the way to go, but that doesn’t mean you can’t display a sense of the emotion involved in the act. Many bosses have to fire people they’ve worked with for a long time. It’s likely they’ve developed personal relationships with them in the process. That undoubtedly makes the conversation more difficult.

To be sure, many bosses try not to cross this line; they purposefully make sure they don’t develop meaningful personal relationships with the people they manage. I find this approach shortsighted and, frankly, dumb, because so much of what goes into successful management and leadership these days has to do with being able to engage with co-workers and direct reports more meaningfully. This shouldn’t stop just because you may have to fire them one day. Heck, you’re probably setting the situation up for failure by closing yourself off to developing a meaningful connection.

Instead, I’m in favor of a total transparency approach. People should be able to deliver the bad news directly, but also be able to show empathy and understanding to the difficult nature of the situation. This goes for people you’ve grown close with at work, too. It’s OK to fire your friend. It’s something you, as a manager, should be able to do. If you’re up front and transparent about the decision, you should be able to handle the situation.

Maybe this approach isn’t for you. Maybe you’d prefer to keep relationships at a professional arm’s length. Maybe having to fire someone you consider a personal friend is too stressful for you. I can understand that.

The bottom line is, no matter what your approach to firing someone is, put some serious thought into it. Letting people go is an inevitable part of business. It sucks, but it’s often part of the gig. If you have an opinion that you think isn’t represented here, please comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.