How To Fire

I’m a stereotypical HR lady.  I have two cats, a couple Coach bags, and I like to fire people.  Now, nearly ALL the HR people I know don’t like to fire people, but based only on pop culture, we share the reputation that we like to fire people.  (I actually do, because by the time my client calls me to ask, firing the person is almost always the right decision.  But I digress…)

There comes a time in every HR and management person’s career where they have to fire someone.  There also comes a time when an employment attorney provides advice on how to actually fire someone.  This isn’t necessarily legal advice on whether the term will have legal consequences, but nevertheless, we need to teach people how to fire.   So, without further ado, follow these steps:

  1. Talk with the employee. I ask my clients whether the employee has any idea that they could be fired.  If they don’t, maybe we should step back and go back over performance expectations.  Or, if it is misconduct related, should we give the employee a second (or third) chance?  If the employee knows or the behavior is eggregious, move on to step two.
  2. Gather documents. Hopefully, a manager will have documented conversations with the employee or at least documented expectations the employee was supposed to meet.  If none, ask for some.  Documents can be an email describing conversations, actual write-ups, text messages, or other things that can be printed in some format.  Put all these documents in the employee’s file.
  3. Schedule the termination. No, you don’t have to put the meeting on the employee’s calendar (if they have one), but you need to make sure all the people who need to be there or have post-term action items know of the termination.  This includes the manager, HR, and likely IT. Wednesdays after lunch work best for terminations – the employee has a couple of days to check with an attorney if they believe the termination was unlawful, and more importantly, the team that has just suffered a loss gets two days to recover before the weekend.  If you terminate on a Friday, everyone sits with it all weekend, wondering to themselves what happened, stirring the pot, and potentially causing a bunch more drama.  It’s better to give everyone a couple of days to ask questions, figure out who will take on tasks, etc. before a weekend.  Then, once Monday comes round, the drama has largely dissipated.
  4. Prepare bullets. The manager should be the one actually doing the firing (this is why they make the big bucks), and they’ll need to prepare.  Their bullets will be the expectations the employee didn’t meet, what happened when they didn’t meet those expectations (e.g. impact on the org or team), and the reason for the termination.  HR prepares bullets for what happens after termination like the return of personal belongings, COBRA, what happens with accrued PTO (or vacation and sick time), and severance package information (if any).  Also, prepare for any questions the employee might have that you can anticipate.  Fair warning, people respond to a termination in a bunch of different ways.  You will not be able to anticipate all of them, but knowing the employee will help get you most of the way.
  5. Get together the stuff. Some of the stuff you’ll need to gather include: (1) termination letter; (2) severance agreement (if you want); (3) COBRA notices; (4) box for personal belongings if you want the employee to take their stuff immediately; and (5) information to gather passwords from the employee.  (Talk with IT on this last one.)
  6. Do it. In person.  In private.  If the employee works remotely, schedule a video conference.  No one should get fired over an email, post-it note, or letter alone.  Sometimes, it makes sense to terminate over the phone, but if at all possible, everyone should see the whites of each other’s eyes.
  7. Launch IT. Once you’ve done it, protecting the organization’s trade secrets, confidential information, and other assets (including co-workers) is the top priority.  Contact IT to close down accounts, access, remove access over personal cell phones, or put in motion plans to redirect email and telephone contact from customers, vendors, or other internal folk.  You may even need to talk with security to get keys and/or fobs.  If the organization leases space, tell the landlord who gets access to the building, namely not the fired worker.
  8. Gather their stuff. You can either have the employee pack up their stuff (if they have an office) or pack it up yourself.  If you’re the packer, take pictures of each drawer or shelf before you pack up in case the employee says you forgot something.  This way, you can present pictures to the employee and ask for more specificity as to what they’re looking for.
  9. Talk with the team. When someone gets fired, no matter how much it is needed, the manager and sometimes, HR, needs to meet with the team to go over what happens next.  The manager doesn’t need to share why the term happened in most cases, but easing the minds and anxieties of the team is crucial to getting through the loss.  Be ready with questions about tasks, desk location, and a whole multitude of concerns employees might have.  It’s okay not to know all the answers, but assuring employees you’ll get back to them is crucial.
  10. Regroup. Once the termination is over and maybe even a couple days later, meet with the manager again to go over what could have been done differently – not necessarily better, just differently.  Could have expectations been set better?  Could more discussions could have been had?  Should we shift how tasks are assigned?  This is a really important opportunity to learn something from what just happened.  Don’t skip this step!

No one thinks terminations are actually fun – they’re not.  That said, firing someone is a necessary part of effectively running a business.  Every business.  If you haven’t ever done it, then it’s likely that you should have.  Remember, it is SIGNIFICANTLY more expensive to keep someone around who isn’t meeting expectations or is toxic to your environment.

 

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Being Human

This week, I had the enormous privilege of attending #workhuman.  If you’ve never heard of Workhuman, where have you been?  Remove yourself from under that comfy rock, and let me share all my learnin’, y’all.  (Workhuman was in Nashville this year, and now, my drawl game is strong.)

Workhuman, formerly Globoforce, is a social recognition and continuous performance management platform that can integrate with lots of different HCMs to improve how your people see and interact with each other.   Workhuman does a ton of research on the impact of social recognition on inclusion, gender, race, wellness, and performance issues that will make your jaw drop.  They’ve come up with ways to inform, but not criticize, how we use language from a gendered and racial perspective when giving recognition or feedback based on the data they have collected from millions of interactions.  It is this research informs how they do business.  They’ve learned that being human makes workplaces better.

#workhuman is their signature conference, bringing together thousands of concerned humans for the sole purpose of trying to figure out how to make the workplace more human.  The conference is all about how do we see, treat, encourage, develop, recognize, thank, and love – yes, I said love, but not in the romantic sense – the people we work with so we can all do better.  This is more than just an HR conference, it is a business conference.

Here are a few of my takeaways:

We have to revel in being uncomfortable.  Whether it was Brene Brown, Kat Cole, Candi Castleberry Singleton, David Lapin, or any of the other speakers, this was a powerful take away.  As a society, we are at a tipping point.  Our workplaces are also at this tipping point.  We can’t simply put our heads down, our safety googles on, and focus on productivity goals if we’re going to be successful.  If we’re going to have people in our workplaces, we need to accept and welcome them as they are.  We’re going to have to talk to them about the heavy society concerns from gun safety, policy brutality, offensive tweets, gender and racial inequality, and the fear that prevents us from being our whole selves.  Allianz does this, Kat Cole does this, we should all do this.

Recognition makes a difference.  Data is the best.  Data that shows we can make a dent in the problems that plague our workplaces is even better.  The data Workhuman shared on how recognition can improve our connections at work, our engagement at work, and help plug the holes in our leaky buckets is so impressive.  I want to know more.  Luckily, there’s a resource page devoted to this!

Pobody’s nerfect, but we can all be resilient.  If we’re going to have difficult, uncomfortable conversations at work, we’re going to make mistakes.  We’re going to hear antiquated language that is now offensive.  We will have to tackle our fear with a battering ram.  We’re going to have to be brave and vulnerable.  We’re going to have to rely on our integrity, strength, and humanity to deal with the mistakes, use them as teachable moments, and move on.  I’m not saying that every mistake is just a mistake – some mistakes warrant termination – but as we encourage these conversations, forgiveness and resilience will be powerful to keep us moving forward.

Being human is hard.  As a crier, I was moved to tears a couple of times – not gonna lie.  It is hard to be vulnerable, willing to fail, learning from our mistakes, and sharing our failures so others can learn from them too.  No one promised this life, in general or in business, was going to be easy.  So, grab your friends, family, co-workers, and meet these obstacles head on.

I cannot oversell #workhuman.  Every attendee self-reflects, does some mental gymnastics, and learned from this conference.  Next year, Workhuman is in Denver.  I hope to be there.  I hope you all are too.

 

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Two Questions

There are two questions that can change how well our people perform, how we work as a team, how we manage, and how we keep compliant.  Here they are:

  1. How are things going?
  2. What can I do to help you?

Definitely not rocket science, but think about these.  If you manager came to you, and genuinely asked, “how are things going?” how would you respond?  Would you respond with some of your concerns or roadblocks, would you say “my mom has been really sick” or “I’m having a hard time getting through to my Assistant,” or would you say “I completed this project!” More likely than not, if you believed your manager really wanted to know, you’d share information about your or your team’s work performance.  You might also share information that affects that work performance.

If your manager asked what she could do to help you, would you give an honest response?  “Janelle in Accounting is holding this up, could you please chat with the CFO?”  “I would like to go to this conference so I can learn more about XYZ.”  “I might need your help filling in for me while I get my mom to the doctor.”  Or, “James has been saying weird things to me, could you help me figure out how to handle the situation?” If you know your manager is willing to help, would you ask for it?  Wouldn’t this help you?

The Harvard Business Review published an important article about questions and how they build emotional intelligence and most importantly, trust.  If all the research is correct that when employees trust their manager, their performance and engagement increase, why wouldn’t we ask managers to ask questions to build trust?  These questions are business related by identifying successes and concerns while offering to help.

So, how does this tie to compliance?  Well, that’s an easy connection – when would people trust us, they tell us when something isn’t going quite right.  They tell us when someone said something he shouldn’t have, when they need a reasonable accommodation, or when they fear a co-worker might be breaking the law. If we want to foster communication from employees on these issues, we need them to trust us.  So, let’s ask them the two questions more often.

One other thing – it’s easy to train managers to lead with these questions.  The hard part is getting those managers to live these questions, to turn them into real information-seeking questions.  Look for those managers who do it well, keep them, train them, promote them.

 

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Tough Conversations

Question:  What do I do if during a conversation about poor performance the employee starts injecting that she’s being attacked or has been harassed?

A tough conversation is exactly that – tough.  For a lot of managers, tough conversations include performance discussions.  A March 2016 Harvard Business Review article explained that two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Two-thirds!  This means a couple of things:  (1) managers don’t know how to have tough conversations; and (2) managers are not prepared to have tough conversations.  HR can help with this!

It is a rare organization that does a great job training managers on how to manage.  Most don’t have the time or resources to devote to some of the “softer” skills about how to communicate with employees.  So, we send managers out into our organizations to fend for themselves, explain they should treat employees how they want to be treated, buy them a book on leadership, and hope for the best.  While I wish managers knew more, here’s what I’d like them to know about tough conversations:

Plan.  Prepare a script.  I recommend you draft an email with some bullet points or full script of what you need to convey to the employee.  If you don’t plan, it’s possible that the conversation will wander and you may miss the clear messaging you need to convey.

Consult.  Consult with HR, another manager, and/or your manager.  Ask them for feedback that you can use to improve your messaging or alter your wording to make the message even more clear or less emotional or harsh.

Take a beat.  Yes, performance should be addressed as soon as possible, but a discussion about performance should not happen in the heat of the moment or in anger.  Take a beat to breathe, plan, and consult.  It’s okay and even preferred where the manager’s own emotion could hinder the discussion.  Just don’t let the beat last longer than one business day.

Schedule.  This is a short, in-person meeting – usually less than 15 minutes.  There should not be a long list of things you need to cover.  Bogging it down with other subjects reduces the importance of the poor performance part of the discussion, so performance should be the only topic of the conversation from the manager’s perspective.  Plus, if you add other topics, the employee may not remember them.

Anticipate.  Usually, a manager knows if an employee will cry, become defensive, and/or angry.  Ponder in your planning what could happen.  Have tissues ready, let HR know you’re having the conversation, or plan to have someone with you if you have concerns about the employee’s reaction.  Select this person carefully – s/he should not be a co-worker of the employee.

Prepare for surprise.  Sometimes, a manager won’t be able to anticipate how the employee react.  In the question above, if the employee starts lodging complaints, the manager needs to know how to refocus the discussion.  Managers will need to hear a complaint, but then remind the employee that she’s there to talk about performance.  Managers should report the complaint immediately after the meeting so HR or management can take action.

Document.  Use your bullet points or script to recap with additions of how the meeting actually went.  The employee does not have to sign off on the documentation but should know of the document’s existence.

I often joke that managers have the word “manage” in their job title, so they’ve got to actually manage.  Most managers are great at saying “you’re doing great,” but it is those conversations where they have to confront an employee about poor performance or misconduct that trips them up.  For HR, this means we coach managers through these tough conversations.  Use these tips and reach out when you need help.

 

 

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Die Annual Performance Review Die

Client calls.  Asks if they can fire Jerry for performance reasons.  The first (seriously, the very first) question I ask is, “what do Jerry’s performance reviews say?”  Experience has taught me that performance-related terminations usually have a homegrown enemy – the employee’s previous annual performance reviews.  What if we could eliminate the enemy by doing it better?

No one likes performance reviews.  Employees lose sleep the night before a review meeting.  Managers hate completing all the forms and fear having uncomfortable conversations.  HR turns into nagging mother-in-law types trying to track down managers to get all the forms turned in so that performance increases can be made.  No one likes this.

Performance reviews are rarely done well.  Most typically, the reviews are so vague they are meaningless.  They focus only on recent events and not performance over the entire year.  They are chockfull of bias.  Sometimes, a manager pretends he lives in Lake Wobegon where all the employees are above average.  Because we in HR are focused on handling the next fire, we don’t have time to push back on managers who do not do performance management well.  So, a poorly completed review gets stuck in a personnel file until I ask about it when the client wants to terminate.

Even when the termination is completely warranted and lawful, it’s the performance review that hurts.  The termination is going to have to get explained.  I’m confident that I am not the only employment attorney stuck explaining why an employee was terminated for bad performance just weeks after a positive review.  (We attorneys should form a secret society complete with a secret handshake.)  Our explanation is often couched in terms of a rapid performance decline as explained by a manager who “wanted to be nice” in the review but had observed poor performance that resulted in a lost customer, order, and so on.  The explanation by both the attorney and the manager is expensive for the company.

These are just a few of the reasons I want the annual performance review to die.  I’m not advocating for the end of performance management – quite to opposite.  I want more frequent, meaningful reviews for everyone.  Here’s my wishlist:

  • Conversation coaching.  Managers need to have difficult conversations with employees about performance.  Most managers, and particularly new managers, have not learned how to have these difficult conversations.  HR pros are conversation coaches, so we need to coach our managers on how to have these conversations.  Or, we need to get our managers the training and skills necessary.
  • Frequent discussions.  I love one-on-ones when they’re done right.  Brief meetings that discuss how projects are progressing that also discuss how the employee is doing are vital to successful businesses.  With this, managers get a sense of what roadblocks they can remove, and employees get critical feedback on how to do better.
  • Transparency.  People need to know how they’re doing.  Managers need to tell them.  Use examples.  Explain how things can improve.  Show.  If employees know where they stand, they may be able to understand why you’re firing them and not believe it is for some unlawful reason.
  • Recognize.  It isn’t just poor performance that needs to see the light of day.  Good performance does too.  Managers need to know how to champion those performers with potential as well as coaching those who just haven’t meet expectation quite yet.
  • Documents.  (Insert collective reader sigh here.)  Yes, feedback discussions should be documented.  I don’t care you document provided you document and I can get it later when we need it.  You can use the functionality of your HCM or you can have managers email themselves brief synopsis of each conversation.  With the conversation coaching, coach managers how to document as well, including how to remove references to protected class status, leave use, or other items that could get an organization in trouble.

Employees deserve to know how they are doing.  More importantly, they want to know how they are doing.  That’s what a great performance management process can do – get employees what information they need to do their jobs well so we can do our business well.

 

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HR Tech’s Adverse Problem

While I totally loitered at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference (I was a presenter, just failed to register – oops), I’d thought a post on what we talked about yesterday and a bit about what’s happening at the University of Minnesota’s HR Tomorrow Conference today: adverse impact, why it’s important, and why you should care.

Adverse impact (known as “disparate impact” by the lawyers) is when groups of individuals described by a particular characteristic is negatively affected by an employer’s decision, selection tool, or policy when that decision, tool, or policy is neutral on its face or does not intend to actually have a negative impact.  For example, if an employer uses a psychological test that filters out African Americans, the test would have an adverse/disparate impact on African Americans.

The concept of disparate impact has been around for a long time.  The United States Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power formally recognized the claim.  Since that time, the law has been debating many aspects of the claim, including what statistical models to use, does the doctrine apply if the rule intends to discriminate, how does impact different from treatment, and will the doctrine apply to all the HR technology out there.  While this post could go on-and-on about all of these questions, this last piece is really important for HR tech buyers, and the answer is probably.

We already know that lots of HR technology vendors, including the fancy-dancy stuff like artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithms, etc., market their products as the only way to find the best candidates, identify problem employees, and make all your dreams come true.  When these technologies are used, their use could create a disparate impact.  How do we know?  Because we’ve already seen how these technologies discriminate outside the world of HR – see photo ID that classifies African Americans as gorillas, recidivism tools that increase prison terms for African Americans, etc., so it is highly likely that they could operate the same way when it comes to HR tech.  Arguably, HR tech has the potential to greatly impact because the decisions HR makes affect individual’s livelihood.

So what should we do about diverse impact?  While there are many, many things we need to do to limit the potential that the HR tech we use doesn’t discriminate, we should start with two things.  First, we have to know how the technology works and the data it uses to make recommendations.  This requires vendors to be open and honest with us, lose the marketing gloss, and really explain their products. Can they explain how the tech works?  Can they explain how the tech works on our organization’s data?  Could the data have bias baked in?  (The answer to this last one is probably yes, especially if we’re looking at hiring or performance data.  There’s just no escaping it.)  When vendors are transparent and honest about these issues, we can take more steps to mitigate any disparate impact the tech might have.

Second, we need to test and test and test to see if the tech creates the disparate impact.  Lawyers and data scientists talk about validation as the test.  For lawyers, validation means under the Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection Procedures.  For data scientists, validation means how strong the correlations are statistically.  This definitional problem causes more debate and potential confusion.  So, we need to find vendors who understand, appreciate, and can articulate validation under both tests.  Because the HR tech world is a bit like the wild, wild west, it’s hard to find them. (Trust me, they’re out there.  I’ve probably met them or at least brow-beat them from a distance on this very issue.)

All that said, I want HR to understand and appreciate that these issues could exist and start playing an active part in fixing these issues.  While I’d love for everyone to trust each other, placing blind faith in a vendor is not in our organizations’ best interest.  Holding people accountable is one of the strengths in HR.  We should use it here too.

One final note, I love this stuff.  This tech is going to revolutionize how we do business.  I just want to do it in such a way that doesn’t create that much risk for our businesses.  Remember my pledge?

 

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