Does HR Keep Mr. Dead in its Back Pocket?

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I am the Grim Reaper.

I arrive in your cubicle, cloaked in black, wielding a separation packet like a scythe. With one fell swoop, I terminate you. Your life as you know it changed in an instant.

Your work life at least.

When I started at my current organization, there had been no one to lead HR for about three months. During that time, it seemed like any disciplinary actions, including terminations, were handled with the phrase, “Let the new HR Guy take care of it when he gets here.” So a lot of these unpleasant tasks awaited me when I arrived, and kept me extremely busy my first couple of months.

We had two buildings. Because my days were so full, I only had time to come to the building in which I didn’t work when there was some serious disciplinary action to be taken. I quickly got a reputation. When staff saw me in the building, they would whisper to each other or send instant messages back and forth: What’s HR doing here? Who’s getting fired now?

I’m not stupid. I knew this was happening. Still, there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. That was several years ago. Since then, I’ve been able to come around for positive reasons as well as negative ones. Employees have gotten to know me, know I’m not the company’s Angel of Death. One year, I even came dressed as the Grim Reaper for Halloween and walked around handing out pink slips of paper. Everyone got the joke. Still, I know there are some employees for whom a lump rises in their throat and a chill goes up their spine when I knock on their office door.

What’s most surprising about this reaction to me is that I don’t actually fire anyone. The manager is assigned this unenviable task. I do have influence in the decision, however, and I am usually present. So while I am not death itself, I am the harbinger of bad news.

None of my workplaces have been ones to fire a large number of people. Still, I’ve handled a fair number of them over the years. It’s not a pleasant task. It is also not a decision that should be made lightly. Here are some tips on making that decision, and how to make it at least a little more palatable.

(Disclaimer: These tips are only intended as food for thought, and should not be taken as hard-and-fast rules. They assume an employee is at-will and non-union. Other rules may apply in your workplace. When in doubt, seek professional advice).

1) Base the Decision on Sound Business Reasons: Below are some questions to guide you.
Do I have all the facts?
Have I treated the employee fairly as compared to other employees on my team?
Are there any ulterior motives outside the workplace that influencing my decision?
Will the employee be surprised by this decision. Have the employee been told that what they are or are not doing will get he/she
Would another manager make the same decision?
Is the cost of keeping the employee (in time, energy, money, etc.) higher than the cost of letting the employee go?
Is this a situation where I should consult an attorney before termination?

2) Don’t Drag Out the Decision: Because firing someone is such an unpleasant duty, we often put it off longer than we should. In the meantime, you, your staff, your customers and clients, are all having to put up with this person.

3) Have a Script: I used to think scripts were cold and impersonal. But after some termination meetings that lasted over an hour while the employee and manager argued, the employee tried to bargain, and the manager said things that he/she probably shouldn’t have said out of discomfort in the situation, I changed my mind. A script keeps the conversation short. The decision is made, here is what we are doing and why. Good-bye and good-luck.

4) Be Respectful: These are business decisions, not personal ones. Only in rare exceptions of gross misconduct (like the person who had sexually harassed half my staff. I won’t put up with A-holes) have I had any personal animosity towards the person being let go. I want that person to move on, find a new position, be successful. Being fired is bad enough. It shouldn’t be made worse by having an armed security officer march the person out the door while coworkers watch (Unless it is necessary for safety reasons. See number 6). After the fact, don’t bad-mouth the former employee. It’s best to say as little as possible to others. Take the high road.

5) Understand the Legal Risk, But Don’t Let it Stop You: I’ve heard HR and managers alike say, we can’t fire Jane even if she is a lousy worker. She’ll sue us. Do your homework. Document everything. Seek expert advice from an employment attorney so that you know your risks and how to mitigate them. Almost any fired employee can try to sue you. But if you have your reasons documented, and the reasons are sound, the time, energy and cost of a claim will be far outweighed by the benefit of no longer having this person on your staff.

6) Take Necessary Precautions: Terminated employees becoming violent is a rare. Most termination meetings, or their aftermath, don’t require you to have an armed guard escort you to your car after work. Still, there are some unstable people out there. If you believe you are terminating someone who may become violent, you need to take steps to make sure you, and the rest of those in your organization, are safe. If you do not have security staff that can help you, seek outside resources who are experts in handling these types of situations.

Looking at how difficult it is to terminate people, and the various risks involved, the question arises, Why fire anyone at all? Why not leave them to rot in their chairs. I knew a company that never fired anyone. If someone was not working out, they simply moved that person to some job where they could do no harm. Other high performing employees would have to work even harder to pick up the slack. Some of these people left, others began to slack off themselves. Meanwhile, people who should have been forced to move on, finding new jobs where they could be happy and successful, ended up in miserable, meaningless positions. What the company thought it was doing to be nice was actually not nice at all.

In Ray Bradbury’s story, The Scythe, a man is given a farm (under strange circumstances) in which the stalks of grain represent actual people, and each time he cuts one down with his scythe, a person dies. At one point in the story, he refuses to harvest anymore. People stop dying, instead falling to sleep. They are in a sort of limbo. The man realizes the necessity of death, picks up the scythe again, and begins cutting more furiously than before.

And so it is with firing people. We may regret that the Grim Reaper exists, but what would we do without him?

One thought on “Does HR Keep Mr. Dead in its Back Pocket?

    3 Toxic Employees You Need to Fire Now | Media Meme said:
    September 30, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    […] The Grim Reaper […]

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