How to Cope with Terminating Employees

Depressed BusinessmanIf you own your own business, manage a business, or supervise people, chances are that at some time in your career you’ve had to terminate someone.

An employee termination is usually performed with a lot of thought and preparation.   When you fire someone, you generally do it with good cause.  However, we’re all human, and ending someone’s job still feels really bad.  How do we take care of ourselves in the process?

Feeling like the executioner meting out the workplace death penalty can be one of the most depressing responsibilities management has.  Having a few coping mechanisms at hand enables managers to themselves recover from the trauma of the situation.

Only shoulder your burdens:

The terminated employee leaves with many emotions and concerns to process, and tasks to handle.  As a compassionate person, it’s easy for you to let your mind ponder how they’re feeling, how their family will react, and what their future will hold.  The reality is, however, that from this point forward, those are their burdens, not yours.

You, no doubt, have your own burdens to shoulder!  You will have to figure out how their work will get done and how you’ll be replacing them, how to manage the impact on your staff, and how to handle the many other issues that result from the termination.  Keep your mind on your own troubles, as they will be placing a large demand upon your own emotions and energy.

You performed a termination with dignity and compassion.  Feeling heartache on behalf of the fired individual is only natural, but you nevertheless must resist the impulse to let your empathy pull you into a dark place — after all, it can’t help the person who’s been terminated, and it definitely isn’t helpful to you.

Give yourself a break:

Letting someone go is a weighty emotional experience, and may very well have taken a toll on you.  Give yourself a break and take care of yourself.

What helps you recover from stress?  A hot bath and glass of wine?  Extra playing time with the kids?  A nice dinner with your spouse followed by a quiet walk?  Going for a run with buddies?  Whatever it is, make it a point to do something that brings your stress down and gives you some relaxation time.

Tomorrow you may have some rebuilding to do, but for just this night, give yourself a break.

Rely on a trusted ally:

There are times that it is very lonely being in management, especially in a small business!  You may find yourself deliberating a termination decision without having anyone else with whom you can discuss it.

Do you question if the timing is right, the decision appropriate or warranted?  You don’t want to second guess yourself once the termination has been made.  Seek the advice of a trusted colleague or peer with whom you can discuss the situation.  Be sure that you protect your employee’s right to confidentiality while you acquire the advice you need to be assured your decision is right.

Plan ahead and move forward:

How your company responds to the termination event will be strongly influenced by the way you respond.  You can reduce your own stress, as well as stress levels throughout the company, by being organized and planning ahead.

Since you have the advantage of knowing that the termination is coming, create a plan for the days and weeks after.  How will you announce the change?  Who will handle the extra work?  What is the process for replacing the employee?  The quicker you move forward in a positive manner, the easier it will be for you to also move forward emotionally.

Remember that it really is for the best:

In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a professional ax-man who travels around the country firing people from their jobs.  At one point, he confidently informs a freshly-terminated worker that, “Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

Telling yourself that terminating an employee is for the best may sound like you’re trying to justify a difficult decision to make yourself feel better, but honestly, oftentimes it really is the best decision, not just for your business, but also for the employee you are letting go!  Sometimes, someone isn’t in the right job for them, or the right company for them — or even in the right time of their life to be doing a particular job.

Here are some famous examples of people whose terminations ended up working out very positively for them:

  • A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
  • Thomas Edison was fired because he wasn’t productive enough.
  • While in the military, Abraham Lincoln was busted down from a captain to a private.
  • Elvis Presley was fired by the manager of the Grand Ole Opry, who told him, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son.  You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck.”

Someone who has been in the news a great deal recently is Steve Jobs, who was once fired from Apple.  Here’s what he had to say about the experience:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.  The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.  It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.  I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple.  It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.

As a good manager, trust that you’ve made a good, thoughtful decision that is best for your company.  Then, trust that the terminated employee will follow the example of Steve Jobs, and turn their difficult circumstance into an opportunity to change their own future.

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