Jack Welch, the leadership extraordinaire, is no stranger to business and the substantial challenges that an organization can face. With so many people involved in different roles, there inevitably will be a need for staff changes or optimizations. As he, like so many others, can tell us, sometimes a new system will supersede someone’s job, or bad behavior despite many warnings will force a manager’s hand. People get fired at companies throughout the world, big and small. It’s a fact of business life, especially in an increasingly competitive, globalized world.
Some leaders, however, handle the process in a rather detached, finger-pointing kind of way. Once an employee is fired, word spreads throughout the company: managers and lower-level workers alike may claim that, “Oh, well they were not good at their job.” Or maybe, “She was a just jerk!” Worse yet, “He will never succeed anywhere, especially here!”
Unfortunately, these common responses are a direct result of leadership not “owning the firing.”
What is Owning the Firing?
What does it mean to “own” the firing? As Welch and his wife Suzy explain in their excellent book The Real-Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing Your Career, owning the firing is just what it says it is.
When management decides to let someone go, they take responsibility for the decision. There is no blaming the outgoing employee. Instead, leadership swallows the fact that they were unable to create the best possible environment for that person to succeed. They simultaneously could not bring that person to adjust, and they did not shape him or her into a productive enough employee for the company. That message is embraced and shared with the rest of the team.
Why Own the Firing?
Why would anyone want to own the firing? Aren’t people usually fired for bad reasons? In many instances, yes; people are typically very much in control of their actions and are most responsible for their own productivity. They definitely did not do their job well in many cases, which, in and of itself, would justify a firing. But think of the ramifications and how it would look on management to share that: “Yeah, Chris was a terrible worker. We’re glad he’s gone, and the change needed to be made.” The blame is put on Chris, in a very negative way.
Now take the same firing of our friend Chris only, this time, let’s listen to management own the firing: “Chris was not given the proper tools to succeed with our company. The environment which management has created was not effective for Chris, and we regrettably had to let him go since we were unable to adjust.” No matter how much of a jerk or lazy bum that this Chris guy was, taking this time to rip on him further would be an increasingly large step backwards.
Instead, the focus is on how management created the environment that Chris was unable to thrive in, even if that environment already is great for everyone else on the team. Maintaining the high ground here is extremely important, since a firing can be a very dramatic or intimidating situation for the rest of the team.
Show how management is in control and that they are at least not outwardly petty.
The rest of the team is going to want answers, so it is best to define them on your own, positive terms. Understand that you could have helped Chris to do better at the company, even if that help would have been ridiculous. Just because it would not have made sense for the rest of the team to adjust to Chris does not mean that that option was not there, so it certainly is far from lying. It is very responsibly spinning the situation positively and in a way that keeps the decision on management.
Avoid the temptation to go on the attack. Adding negative or hostile energy to an already negative situation will only increase the problem and will keep team morale and respect lower. That outgoing employee would also have a lot more ammo to supply any rage resulting from the firing. There is no need to provoke the disgruntled former employee into causing any more damage. Management should be swift in defining why the firing was done in a way that keeps it entirely on leadership.
Without owning the firing, there is no telling what negative backlash will arise. Do not let the free hand of the market determine how information will be received. Take initiative and explain what went wrong without shaming the departing person. Simply put, own it!
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