Firing People Who Don’t Deserve It

Merciless Leadership

Image by joseph_Berardi from Pixabay

“When it’s time to let someone go, do it right. No surprises. No humiliation.” — Jack Welch

Being the leader of a hundred-million-dollar organization is no joke. Part of the leader’s job, especially when business is not going well, is to reduce expenses, to make cuts. Those cuts include reducing the size of your teams to keep delivering the shareholders expected value.

Despite your feelings for your team, you must do your job. You must fire people who are losing their jobs through no fault of their own.

In my career, I have executed unfair layoffs. Those being laid off were not responsible for the business financial objective miss. Layoffs are popular with senior management. Layoffs are visual, demonstrate forceful action and immediately impact the balance sheet.

I worked for an Engineering firm where the engineers made a design error that was not discovered until after the product was delivered.

All production was stopped. Every part of the design needed to be re-evaluated for flaws. Quality Assurance shut the product line down.

New parts were ordered, but until the long lead parts (parts that take more than eighteen months to deliver) were delivered to us, we had no work for twenty percent of our workforce. One hundred and forty people lost their jobs.

The associates who lost their jobs were not the engineers that caused the problem. Nope, the engineers were safe doing the reassessments and design updates. The production workers that had less to build, the receiving team that had less to receive and shipping team that had less to ship were reduced.

The cafeteria people had less food to cook and people to feed. The maintenance staff had less garbage to empty; even the HR department had fewer employees to manage. All of those staffs were reduced.

Of the required reductions, all the employees except HR reported to my team.

Samuel Zeller@samuelzeller-upsplash

The executive team knew we were causing hardships that would extend into the community. When our employees did not have a regular paycheck coming in, they would not spend money. Many small businesses would be impacted.

Unemployment compensation paid a portion of wages for six months (we would not fight the claims), but we had an eighteen-month window for recovery, leaving the employees with a twelve-month financial hole.

I knew that Joe’s daughter would not be able to afford college without her father’s help, that Marie would eventually need to get free health care for the baby due in four months, that Carol’s chemotherapy would be disrupted. They needed their jobs to access their health benefits.

Working with their direct bosses to determine who would be laid off was a bitch. We had a set of legal guidelines from Human Resources, but several of the measurements were based on a person’s perceived value. The supervisors and managers would make a recommended rack and stack i.e. sort their associates by how valuable they believed they were to the company, for my final approval.

The leaders could not show any sign that we knew what we were doing was heartbreaking. We behaved as if the employees deserved to be let go because we needed the remaining employees to work their hardest for our company to succeed after such a tough setback.

Before I came to the office on the day of the layoff, I got ready for the show. I dressed the part of the sharp executive woman. My make-up was perfect; I had touchup items in my bag. My nails and hair were perfect. I steeled myself internally with the three C’s — be cool, calm, and confident.

“ The show must go on.
 The show must go on.
 Inside my heart is breaking.
 My make-up may be flaking.
 But my smile still stays on” — The Show must go on.”- Queen, 1991

My team decided I needed to be in the room because we were going to carefully imply that the jobs would return in eighteen months. We could not promise.

I needed to show respect for the person losing their position. It was necessary to act as if I did not understand the devastation I was delivering with the pink slip in the white envelope.

Dodging all the why me questions was a task. (Why me and not Sam?) Plenty of tears from the employees, no tears or signs of hesitation from the boss.

It was hard not to give employees hope beyond the talking points on the eighteen months restart that HR gave every manager to deliver to the fired people. Not a tiny bit of hope can leak out of your eyes or come out of your mouth. When people are laid off, false hope will cause them to make bad decisions in their life.

Every word said during the process will be examined thoroughly by that employee over and over. Be careful. Be kind.

After every one of your fired employees is out of the building, you would think the boss could relax a bit. Nope, you cannot.

You are not done yet, as the boss: you must now reallocate the laid-off employees work to those who were not associated with the delayed project. The remaining members of the team must step up to both do their work and the leftover work of their missing comrades. Layoffs impact those who leave and those who remain.

The leader who must motivate the remaining workers to work harder and smarter is none other than you… the same person who just fired their coworkers. The show must go on as there are other customers to be satisfied.

Striking the right balance is hard. A certain level of sadness for the missing employees, the optimism that the re-design will succeed, the pragmatism that the existing work must be delivered, the conviction that the engineering team will meet their objectives, and enough caution that the team does not fall into despair.

Even though a major disruption has happened, the team must be motivated by you to be successful.

Some of the employees will grieve. They will feel as if you personally took their friends from them. You must not do anything that will cause them to resent you. Your success depends on those who remain.
How you feel does not matter… the show must go on! The business is counting on you.

Until it is your turn to be pushed out the door once all the dirty work is done.


Another read: Cruel Leadership Truths


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