I loathe letting people go. Many things bring pleasure in the work of an Engineering Manager, but some aspects are horrible, but they have to be done, and they have to be done by us. I was fortunate enough in my career that I had to do it very rarely, but enough to have an opinion on it by now. In a way, this is the guidance I wish I had myself for the first time. Let’s explore why being able to fire people is an important tool in the toolbox of Engineering Managers for the health of the organization, and how to best deal with the emotional outfall when using it. This article doesn’t talk about layoffs, but the very distinct termination of a single Employee.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and labor laws in Germany (and Europe) are strict and protective of Employees, for a very good reason. If you have to let someone go, please loop in your HR Department as soon as you can, they can help you getting it over smooth and legally compliant as soon as possible. You don’t want to end up in labor court, no matter your net worth.
This is maybe some addition to Samir’s post about the question:
Is it kind to fire people?
I very much agree with this statement. We as managers are not just responsible for just one single person, but a whole group. Sometimes it’s the kind thing for the affected individual. Sometimes it’s for the greater good of the group. Both ways, it might be necessary. And keeping someone around who won’t be able to dig themselves out whatever hole they have gotten themselves into is ruinous empathy
Being able to fire people will also allow you to hire in the first place: It enables you to bring in “bets” into the team - people that are maybe totally awesome, but there is some risk that they are not. Maybe someone who has a different educational background than what you require. Or a lack of technical expertise that you need, but something else to balance it out. If you don’t have that option, because you can never get rid of them again, you will default to only hiring “safe” bets. Even worse, because of the similarity bias that we all have, everyone in your team will look like you and have a similar background. 1
Whenever it is necessary, it’s our duty not just to do it, but to own the decision. If we don’t, we are “just” a coach to our group, or worse, a glorified cheerleader. In times of crisis where someone has to be removed from the group, the team will look at you to go through with it, or you will lose their trust as a leader (nicely put into words in this wonderful post about they like you too much).
Reasons not to let someone go
Before we stuff people in our metaphorical cannon, let’s draw some lines about where not to fire:
When it’s about the work, and not your fellow people, a lot of things can go wrong. And that’s okay - I would not fire people for setting production on fire by accident. This is a case for learning from failure) and not for termination, and as the joke goes, a very expensive training lesson. I feel it needs to be pointed out because, despite all the trust I tried to build in my career, some of my reports got scared for their job when they messed up - and that should not happen ever. Things can go wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, but that should be a reason to fix your systems. Otherwise, your new replacement hire will just mess it up again.
You are mean and uppity to me? Question my authority2? Don’t follow my advice?
That’s cool, you do you. I can handle that - it’s in no way a reason to let you go, don’t worry. Retaliation is for losers, and I try hard not to be one.
Quick headcount adjustments
In the line of recent layoffs (and I’m no CEO reporting to Wall Street, so easy to say for me): Don’t hire fast and lose, just to fire liberally later. That’s no ethical way to treat people - and I think it’s also financially unreasonable to do so: Hiring, Onboarding, morale and image damage after layoffs are a costly thing that probably renders the whole exercise uneconomic outside of quick stock pump actions.
Reasons to let go
I can see two big behavior classes of reasons why you would need to let someone go.
Violation of your code of conduct
Your company likely has something close to a code of conduct - either written out explicitly or implicitly by the culture and behavior that you tolerate and reward.3 Unfortunately, most harassers are good at staying in the “grey zone” of such constructs, and just testing the boundaries, instead of blatantly running over. They cause damage to the harassed ones anyways and need to be stopped.
If you find some harassment or similar happening (and it’s your job to be on the lookout for such behavior), I believe it’s important to strike fast and clear, and terminate this person right away. It’s not only about the prevention of further harassment, it’s about the message to the other employees.
The net negative
This one is a lot muddier, and unfortunately happens way more often: A person is not a “net” positive contribution to the team. Either they are just not up to the job, or they get themselves in trouble with their teammates too much. Too much energy is turned into heat via arguments, and ultimately the team slowly corrodes from the negative influence. Why bother if everything you try to do turns to ash anyways?
In this case, I believe extensive coaching and warnings needs to happen before - This should not come as a surprise, and often you can turn the ship around by being a good manager and coach. But if you fail, and there is no other home for this person in your organization, letting go is the natural consequence, and people should be aware of that.
The brilliant jerk
A more obvious version of the net negative is the brilliant jerk: Someone who is really competent and very successful, but not able or willing to interact well with others. If coaching and clear messaging don’t work 4, you have to pull the plug as well, because the invisible damage that these people cause to morale weighs heavier than their achievements. They also usually bend the rules in a public fashion, eroding your codified culture for the worse. I find way fewer of these people in today’s tech world compared to when I started, so I assume there are a lot of managers thinking similarly to me.
Fun excourse: Whenever I interview companies, I like to ask about whether they tolerate brilliant jerks (“No totally not! Never!”) but when I ask about examples, few have an actual occurrence of terminating someone for jerkiness. So I guess we still have a way to go here.
For the cases where someone is consistently not happy with their place in the team, or the contributions are really not there to justify the salary they command, and you have exhausted all your other options of coaching and improvement:
I love this subtle approach from the Japanese nineties, where you move someone’s desk closer to the window and give them less work - so that they have time to look outside, and have a chance to realize they should probably go somewhere else.
Since we Europeans are less subtle, I would suggest finding a good way in a 1:1 setting to discuss the elephant in the room: Likely the person is unhappy themselves, and they need a gentle nudge because they are afraid to make that heavy step. If they leave on their own terms it’s a lot easier for everyone involved, and it lets them safe face. You even might try it as a last-ditch effort to give them the option to quit (even if it’s punised by the german unemployment office).
“You can’t fire me, I quit!” - angry employee, soon to ask for being fired for unemployment money.
Letting someone go feels a lot like a failure on your part - especially if you hired that person. In a way, this means acknowledging your mistake when you hired this person, and you failed to identify it in time. Or you failed to correct that behavior via coaching, even though you tried. I think it’s to some extent okay to feel bad about this - you don’t want to let go too easily, and an emotional hurdle helps for that. No matter how right our decision is, we still apply a chainsaw to somebodys economic situation and potentially whole identity. So knowing that you can brace yourself for the doubts that keep creeping in, and make sure you are solid and firm in your decision. You can’t really un-fire a person.
You might notice that I don’t talk about what happens to the let-go person afterward. I try to not concern myself with this, not because I am evil but because I am just responsible for the professional aspect of someone’s life, not the private part. And given that we have very good social security in place, we have fantastic job opportunities) in our sector, and the departure agreement is usually favorable for the employee, I am confident that they will get back on their feet.
Go document, go document and then document some more. I think if you want to let someone go your pitch of why that needs to be done, must be as strong as if you want someone to invest a few million into your business. So get your story tight, and have strong facts that prove your decision.
Also, no surprises: People should be clear about why you want to let them go. In the best way, it has been coming since you both tried to fix the situation. (except for the violent harasser we mentioned before, here strike fast and hard. They know what they did.)
Once everything is in place and you have your HR on board, you should act fast and swift: I try to see it as ripping a band-aid off. Have an exit talk with the person where you explain the why and the what-now in very precise terms, and have their accounts deactivated during the talk. It is delicate being correctly empathic - the other person is likely confused, angry and overwhelmed. You can acknowledge that it’s a bad situation, without being open to negotiations of any sort.
Keep in mind that after speaking out the magic words, the mind of the person will likely be all over the place. Take your time, let them process before moving on to explaining the reasoning and the details of the termination, otherwise, they won’t get it. It’s hard to focus on minutiae if you mentally reassess how long you can pay rent with your savings.
Tell the team afterward, but on the same day: You want to avoid gossip and spreading of rumors that does more harm to morale.
The situation for the person you have fired is worse than it is for you. Period. So under all circumstances, don’t make this about you in the workplace. There are plenty of times where it’s the right thing to be vulnerable, but this is not the case: You might feel like shit and a failure (and that’s good, because you are a caring human), but sharing this with your team will make you look like the CEO who cries about the layoffs he did on his yacht. It will also allow questioning if it was the right decision, and since this is not reversible, you have to press forward.
Go reach out to your outside network (or your Voltron) and recover there.
You also have to care for your team now: Even if they agree with your decision (Likely they will tell you afterward how much they desired this to be done, but they will not tell you before), there’s a gap now. And maybe there is a fear that someone else might be next. I try to iterate on basically the contents of this article - What behavior will result in being fired, and what not. Spend the time on this, don’t pretend the person never existed, and also don’t badmouth them afterward or make them retroactively responsible for all problems.
It is also a good time to re-asses your hiring funnel, to see if you can add something to filter out candidates before they get hired - But beware adding too much organizational scar tissue, and making your hiring process insane.
In a previous version of this article I had a misfiring joke about everyone being called Chad here that didn’t transport what I was trying to say. Thanks to Nils for giving me feedback! ↩︎
if you only knew how little authority I wield you wouldn’t do that, but sob with me. ↩︎
Externalised and formalized is better: It will allow more vulnerable groups of employees to not only understand how safe they are in your organization, and will empower them to point out violations better. ↩︎
look at the Phoenix Project for a nice example of saving someone who is on track to become the brilliant jerk ↩︎