How to Let Employees Go Properly

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Just as there are many management styles, there are perhaps even more ways to handle terminating employees. There's the Michael Scott way (approaching it with the utmost awkwardness and ineptitude) and there's even the Donald Trump way (being so callous about letting subordinates go that he even sought to trademark the phrase "you're fired"), but odds are you probably don't want to utilize either of these approaches.

If you're running a business, it's inevitable that you'll sooner or later have to let someone go. To help this uncomfortable topic be a little more controlled, I gave Lunar Media CEO Gina Hutchings a call. Lunar Media is a Chicago-based web-design firm that helps other companies establish their identities and put forth the image they want to the corporate world.

What are some mistakes people tend to make after they've identified someone who should be let go?

Gina Hutchings: It's pretty difficult to train someone to do what you want them to do, so a lot of times employers will keep someone on for an extended period of time to avoid having to start over. I have a three-strike rule. I only have freelance designers, but if you have someone who's a full-time staffer that's a little more difficult to let them go because you have to start over. I feel like sometimes you let someone walk down the same path a few times. It's more valuable for me to spend the time to retrain somebody than to continue to have to undo the damage that an employee has done.

This sounds exactly like a relationship, putting off breaking up with someone and finding someone new.

[Laughs.] Yes, it's a lot like that. I think the main agenda for any business is to make your customers happy. If that is being jeopardized because someone isn't on time -- most of my employees don't have direct contact with my clients -- but if I have to go and tell a client that I'm late because a programmer hasn't provided me with the job, then it reflects poorly on me. You can only do that so many times until it clicks as, "Okay! Time to find a new programmer."

I am not one of those formal people who will sit down with you and explain why you have disappointed the company. I will just say, "Your services are no longer needed." It's pretty cut and dry. And that point it's not a matter of feelings, it's more a matter of the bottom line, the business.

In terms of the actual conversation when you're letting the person know, what are areas or tones to avoid? Sounds like you're a fan of the Band-Aid approach: Just do it quick.

I think business should be business. I don't feel like it should be personal. If somebody works with you and is your right-hand man and is with you all week, or if you've had a personal relationship with them? All my business is done over the Internet over phone, so I don't have pictures of John's family in my mind. I don't have those endearing moments with freelancers. I feel like if you can stay on a professional level with your employees as much as possible, it's not going to come down to, "Oh, he's such a jerk." At that point you should have discussed this with your employee multiple times. You've had this problem before.

I feel if you are on a three-strike rule, so long as they are all the same consistent things, there shouldn't be a question. If they're three totally separate incidents, I probably wouldn't have let that person go.

It's like being late for work. If you're late to work three times in a row, someone's gonna do something about it. You're held accountable for your position, and if you don't have the work ethic to provide for your employer? There are so many people looking for jobs that there will be someone who will show up on time.

That was something else I was curious about: Given how tough the job market is, do you feel employers are more or less inclined to let employees go?

I personally wouldn't think that. It's just as difficult. With everyone being aware of the unemployment rate and the situation, everyone knows someone who's unemployed right now. These are competent people, and we see the hardship that goes along with it. I wouldn't say that I would feel more inclined because there's more fish in the pond. It would just be as hard to let someone go for the same reason.

Do people get desensitized to letting employees go? Does it get easier?

I'm a very small business, so it's a lot more difficult for me than to have someone who hires somebody to come in and do that for them. There are actually people who come in to let people go. In large corporations, they even have systems. Everybody's seen Office Space. It's a little different in a small business.

First of all, I have to protect my own reputation. You have to it with kid gloves to be sure they don't go around telling everyone you treated them poorly. If you're a big company, that really could affect your reputation if you do it enough. Gossip.

After you've let someone go, how do you do damage control on morale among everyone who's still around?

I don't have that problem because I don't have an office full of employees. It's all blind. Nobody knows because my freelancers don't work together.

It's your responsibility as a business to protect your image. If that requires you to adjust your employee pool then it's better for you to be able to provide the public with valuable services than it is to protect an employee who doesn't have your business in their best interest. We call it sweat equity: If you put in overtime to help out, if you talk about how you love your job on your day off, that's also an equity. That's going to help your business grow. If they're just dead weight, it might be hard to do, but it's going to be better off for the health of your company — I sound like a tyrant. [Laughs.]

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