The Art of Leadership When Letting Employees Go

Leadership when letting employees goI remember a day early in my career when I was sitting with colleagues at lunch, listening to stories about how employees had been “let go” in the not-too-distant past. They talked of the “microwave room,” the conference room whose windows were covered in foil for a few days while those who were called into it were “‘waved.” It sounded horrible.

The first time I had to let someone on my team go was just a few years later and was solely due to budget cuts. Someone higher up on the food chain had decided since the company was having a challenging year, marketing budgets would be cut (shocker, I know).  Someone else determined that a Marketing Coordinator who worked for me would be cut because she was the most recent hire, and I had to be the one to tell her.

Here’s the thing: rules such as, “10% of the most recent hires will be let go” make justifying decisions easier, but they don’t constitute “talent management.” Nor do they constitute leadership.

This isn’t to say that there are not times when it makes sense to let employees go. These situations absolutely exist and as I mentioned in my post entitled, “The Number One Thing CEOs Wish They’d Done Differently,” leaders often regret not moving faster on talent decisions. But leaders also acknowledge the critical importance of

  • recognizing
  • challenging
  • inspiring
  • valuing
  • listening to, and
  • rewarding

company employees. Those who do acknowledge this make talent management one of their top 3 priorities in each and every staff meeting, and insist on this throughout the organization. This way, they are ahead of the curve when it comes to:

  • providing additional challenge and reward to high potential employees
  • recognizing situations where employees who could be high potential are simply in the wrong roles
  • offering training and development in a targeted way to ensure all employees have the skills needed to succeed at their job
  • discerning between employees who are not a fit for their position and those who are not a fit for the company

In my opinion, the art of leadership when it comes to letting employees go should – wherever feasible – come from a keen understanding of which employees are not a good fit for the company, and would thus not succeed in any role, even with further training. Of course, what this comes down to is cultural fit, which for some individuals is just never going to be possible.

Part of the art of letting these individuals go is recognizing that this lack of fit is often not the individual’s fault. Perhaps there was not a clear understanding of the culture when they chose to join the organization, or the hiring manager may simply have made a poor estimate when it came to evaluating fit.

But I believe – deep in my core – that every individual has the capability of being considered “high potential” when they find companies and roles that are a perfect fit. That’s what every leader should strive for in their company, and what they should encourage employees to find when they are let go.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts tomorrow night at Leadership Chat on Twitter! My Co-Host Steve Woodruff and I will lead a global conversation about this topic from 8:00-9:00 pm Eastern Time. We hope to see you then!  ~~~

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  1. You bet I have a comment. I managed two different departments in 2 different cities at once for a Big 4 firm. I never fired anyone! When they weren’t a good fit, I eased them out. Some of the talent management practices in organizations is sheer stupidity.

    Please read a past blog post of mine where I describe how my younger brother (who is now spectacularly successful) had a professor in one of his classes at one of the very best business schools in the country demonstrate how bad diring is. I feel so strongly about this.

    You don’t hire and fire. You manage people. I was considered and still am considered a sensitive person. Wrong. We are all sensitive and all have feelings. Today’s employee might be tomorrow’s customer and might be a social media influencer one day. Public relations and human resources work together.

    There’s so much more to this story. There’s not enough time to talk about training and mentoring to build a strong staff and how use employees for you and not think of them as burdens.
    Henry Motyka´s last blog post ..Too Big To Fail? Two New And Different Views

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences so passionately, Henry! I agree with you… I hope you’ll join us at Leadership Chat to explore this further! All the best and thank you for taking the time to share here with the Community!

  2. This is a really important topic that is often overlooked until necessity forces the issue. It’s never easy, and sometimes it really IS about budget cuts or changes, but leaders who manage well shouldn’t be surprising anyone with this news. I so wish I could attend #leadershipchat…if not, I’ll look for the insights later!
    Jeannie Walters´s last blog post ..Book Review: Roar!

    • Jeannie,

      I wish you could attend as well and appreciate your interest and support of the topic! Excellent point that leaders who manage their talent well should not be surprising anyone. Rather, there should be ongoing conversations about performance, values and “fit issues” if any were to arise, so that the employee could be working to improve wherever possible. We’ll make sure we send out the transcript!


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