How NOT to Fire Someone

Want to be a better boss? Treat people respectfully even if -- perhaps especially if -- they're on their way out the door.

pink slip 

(Photo Credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr)

Don't Embarrass Anyone

On Friday, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong fired AOL Patch Creative Director Abel Lenz ... on the phone ... during a conference call ... in front of approximately 1000 of his erstwhile colleagues.

This breaks just about every rule in the book, including the Golden Rule. Even if we make allowances for hard-boiled executive types having a different moral code than our grandmothers, it's just bad business. Business Insider picked up the story within hours, and Jim Romenesko tweeted at Lenz the same day to inquire for more details.

The result is more than one disgruntled former employee, or even 1000 terrified current employees: it's a PR nightmare.

Face-to-Face Is Best

There's really only one right way to deliver the news that someone's services are no longer required, and that's in person. That means no text messages, no sky-writing, no dropping a letter off at their home, etc. Even the phone, which has become an almost quaintly old-fashioned means of communication in this SMS-obsessed age, isn't personal enough.

Just ask Carol Bartz, Yahoo's former CEO. Bartz was fired via phone call by the chairman of the board, a situation she did not take lying down.

"I am very sad to tell you that I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's chairman of the board," she wrote in an email to Yahoo's employees, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"I thought you were classier," she said, addressing Yahoo Chairman Roy Bostock. Later, in an interview with Fortune magazine, she was even more abrupt: "These people f---ed me over."

Don't Bring in Third Parties

Unsurprisingly, employees aren't thrilled to have a security guard, HR rep, or other heavy present during their termination. The Wall Street Journal references a 2009 study "Preserving Employee Dignity During the Termination Interview," which found that even when employees were praised during their dismissal, they still felt pretty lousy when they were escorted from the building afterward.

"The advice that has been given to managers --you should have another person in the room, you should focus on the positives -- may be driven by the legal department," says study co-author Matthew Wood. "Legal may say it needs to be done, but people react pretty negatively."

Bottom line? Be human, and treat people fairly. To do otherwise is to indicate to your entire staff that they can expect similar treatment, should their tenure ever come to an abrupt close. It's bad for morale, which is in turn bad for productivity. Nervous people are not productive people, and it's hard to sell your reports on the idea that they should be committed to the company when it's apparent that the company is not committed to them.

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