A founder's most difficult job – firing someone

Firing a member of staff is never easy. Jennifer Kim, a Silicon Valley-based HR expert and startup consultant, says tackling the task with empathy is the best approach.
firing someone hero

The first time Jennifer Kim had to fire someone from a company she did a pretty bad job of it. ‘It was the standard inexperienced manager [thing],’ she says. ‘I didn’t have the direct conversations early on enough, I was waffling, I was emotionally caught up.’

Since then, she’s come a long way. That’s not to say Kim is going around firing her employees with abandon. After her first experience of relieving an employee didn’t quite go to plan and she saw the impact that conversation had on the person in question, she became motivated to become an expert on how startups can treat their employees with care. ‘I realised how just a little bit of thinking ahead, support and process can [really improve the situation].

’At the end of the day someone loses their job. It’s a very tough scenario.’

Today, she consults startups on all aspects of talent management – including letting staff go. Here, she shares four key elements of firing ‘well’, so both employees and managers can move on with as little acrimony as possible.

1. Break down the process

The first thing Kim says is to stop thinking about the situation as one huge, scary decision. ‘Separate it out from “should I fire this person?” to a series of smaller decisions.’

In practice, this can range from letting other top managers know what’s going on, to addressing the elephant in the room with the employee. ‘Instead of going from zero to 100,’ Kim says, ‘you’re working through a process. Lower the stakes at each step.’

2. Can the situation be improved?

Actually talking to the employee is vital before making a decision on their future. ‘It’s a difficult conversation, but you’re giving them a fair shot,’ Kim says.In that meeting, agree on some very specific, measurable goals, how long they’ve got to make the changes, and continue to offer managerial support during this period. ‘I’ve seen struggling employees get turned around as a result of this process. Isn’t that a better outcome overall?’

3. Be firm, decisive and fair

Resolving the situation isn’t always possible. If employee performance doesn’t improve after specific targets, it’s time to say goodbye.

‘This is a time [for a founder] to step up as a leader,’ Kim says. ‘No matter how awkward it feels, it’s not about their feelings. They are not the ones getting let go.

‘Break the news early – don’t let them sit there and not know what’s going on,’ Kim explains. ‘Use short, direct sentences with authority but kindness. You don’t want to get stuck in an argument. You are allowed to let the employee vent, but you don’t want to get sucked in.

‘Ensuring the conversation doesn’t get overly emotive is important not only in terms of reducing legal risks, but allowing the employee to move on from the situation, too. Planning a script – even mentally – can help the conversation stay on track.’

4. Telling their teammates

Once an employee is out the door, it’s essential to communicate to the team what has happened and why – before rumours flourish.

And while it’s natural for employees to want to know why one of their colleagues is no longer coming to work, founders and managers should be careful on how much they divulge. ‘What people need to know is that there was a fair process,’ says Kim. ‘People absolutely remember how their colleagues get treated on the way out.’

This article was first published in Courier Issue 30, August/September 2019. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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