Working Wounded: How to Fire a Popular Employee

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Dear WOUNDED: I'm about to fire a popular long-time employee. What should I say to everyone else?

ANSWER: I was once flying from Chicago to Seattle. You can imagine my surprise when the pilot announced we were about to land in Las Vegas. It wasn't until we got to the gate we were told that there was an ice storm in Seattle and that's why we were rerouted.

That's similar to how most companies handle the icy storm of a departing key employee -- especially if they are fired. They assume no one will notice. Or it just isn't important. Or everyone will figure it out. In reality, they create the fire and ice storm that follows. Below I've outlined strategies for explaining why a highly visible employee was let go. For more, check out Mader-Clark and Guerin's book, "The Progressive Discipline Handbook" (Nolo, 2007).

If possible, talk to Human Resources and your company's legal counsel before you let the person go. You shouldn't keep employees, vendors or customers out in dark, but you don't want to get burned in a lawsuit either. Avoid the soap opera, and a defamation lawsuit, by establishing clear boundaries about how you speak concerning the employee's performance, attitude, etc.

Employees have a legitimate interest in knowing that an employee has left the building. If for no other reason than to know who'll be handling their tasks in the future.

Of course, there is a chilly e-mail or text message option -- it's simple and you can control the message. But as with a plane landing on a black ice-covered runway, you have no idea how that message will land.

That's why I'd suggest face-to-face meetings, either one-on-one or as a group. Sure, you may get some burning glares, but you also have the chance to appear to be a human being.

The downside relates to the boundaries described above; that's why you need to have as much of a plan for what you won't say as for what you will say.

Most employees have had a bad goodbye experience, and this may reignite those flames. There is a natural progression in how some people will react -- anger, sadness and acceptance. It's the natural way to respond when a long-time colleague departs.

Remember two things here: Don't take the anger personally and for most people the anger will pass.

There is a temptation to want to degrade the employee who has left. Hey, you don't want to be the bad guy here.

The problem here goes far beyond the threat of a lawsuit from the departed. The real danger here is the message that you send to the people who remain. You don't want them to start imagining you secretly feel the same way about them.

So don't just storm in blindly to explain why an employee has left, and you'll land in the right place with your people.

Thought for the Week

"Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder." Laurence J. Peter

List of the Week

Would you hire them? Odd job hunting tactics

"The job seeker sent a bowling pin and said, 'I'll bowl you over."'

"One candidate took a picture of himself with every one of the client's products and sent three photos a week for an entire month."

"One person sent an egg carton with faux eggs and a message saying she 'delivered fresh ideas daily.'"

"The applicant sent his resume on a big hamburger roll, saying his 'brains were on a roll.'"

From: Creative Group

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. He'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you have better ideas than he does. His books include "The Boss's Survival Guide" and "Gray Matters: The Workplace Survival Guide." Send your questions or comments to him via: bob@workingwounded.com.

ABCNEWS.com publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday. This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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