Is There a Good Way to Fire Someone? No, But Don’t Ever Do It By Phone

If there’s one thing that struck me this week about the firing of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, it’s this: Why would you fire a person, especially a CEO, over the phone, especially when you could do it in person?

This is something I know a little about because, yes, believe it or not, I had to do it once when I couldn’t be in two places at one time.

The Wall Street Journal had a story this week about how to fire someone — titled Bad Call: How Not to Dismiss an Employee —  and it was instructive not only because it was spun out of how the Yahoo Board handled the termination of their CEO, but because it had a laundry list of many of the things you absolutely don’t want to do when you are firing someone.

What NOT to do

Here are a few of the “don’ts” the Journal listed:

  • Opting to not do it in person. Chuck Baldwin, a partner in employment law firm Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., told the Journal that “when a CEO is fired for poor performance … he always advises clients to fire the employee in person. Over the past few years he has had three instances where a board thought of firing a CEO by phone because the executive was traveling. Each time he advised the companies to put someone on a plane and track the CEO down to fire him face-to-face.”
  • Having a security guard to escort the terminated employee out. This “may actually upset employees more, leaving companies vulnerable to lawsuits. One 2009 study examined how workers reacted to several common methods of firing, such as having a third party like a human resources manager or a security guard present during the firing, or mentioning the employee’s positive attributes as he or she is being dismissed. The study found that employees generally liked being praised even as they were getting fired, but that any favorable effects of the praise were “eroded” when workers were escorted by a security guard after the meeting. What’s more, having a third party in the room “was viewed as demonstrating a lack of respect,” according to the study, “Preserving Employee Dignity During the Termination Interview,” published in the Journal of Business Ethics.”
  • Not explaining WHY the worker is being dismissed. “Management experts also suggest that bosses explain why workers are being let go,” the newspaper says. “One study of nearly 1,000 terminated workers in Ohio found that workers were 10 times more likely to report suing their former employer if they were given no explanation of why they were dismissed than workers given a complete explanation.”

Those are all things you shouldn’t do, but what about what you SHOULD do when you have to fire someone?

Firing is a one-on-one activity

As someone who has done his fair share of terminations, they never, ever, are something you get used to, nor does the process get any easier the more you do it. That’s because it is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do in life, and unless you are less-than-human yourself, you most always find yourself thinking, as you are doing it, “this could be happening to me.”

The fact is, many people get terminated for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance — as we have seen all too often during the mass layoffs and cutbacks that define the Great Recession.

I’ve written about this topic many times, and it never gets old because, well, too many people never seem to figure out how to terminate someone with tact and sensitivity. Here’s what I said about that back in 2007, on another blog, in Firing is a One-on-One Activity:

There’s only one right way to fire a person — in person, face to face, supervisor to worker. There’s a reason for this, and it’s simple: It should be handled that way because management should be forced to personally confront the consequences of its actions.

I don’t know any good manager who likes firing people, but unfortunately, it’s part of the job. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you owe it to the person you are firing to sit them down and tell them the reasons why.

Can you do it by phone? Well, yes, but that should only be used in an extremely unusual or exceptional circumstance. I’ve had to travel across the country on occasion to discharge a remotely based worker in person, and although I hated having to do it, I always felt it was a trip worth making. Why? Well, when you have to fire someone in person, you find that you are a lot less willing to consider doing it in the abstract. And that’s why doing it by email or phone is a cop-out. It dehumanizes a process that is pretty inhuman to begin with.

Taking a person’s job away, for whatever reason, is one of the worst things you can do to another human. Doing it in person doesn’t make it better, but it does make it more personal and is one small thing that can help the departing person walk away with some small measure of dignity.”

Yahoo’s Board shows its clumsy and clueless side

The one time I had to fire — actually, lay off — a person by phone, it was because they were out on long term disability, lived the better part of 100 miles away from the office, and I had to be on the opposite side of the country laying off some other employees at the same time.

Article Continues Below

I felt it was better, given the circumstances, that I be the one who was doing it to my staffer rather than some anonymous corporate HR person they had never met. So, I did it over the phone, as unfortunate as that was.

I didn’t like doing a layoff that way, and in fact, I didn’t like doing it at all, but if you are going to be a manager, and executive, and HR pro, that sort of thing comes with the territory.

Yahoo’s dismissal of Carol Bartz over the phone just proves, once again, that even board members at a Fortune 500 company can be terribly inept, clumsy, and just plain clueless when it comes to matters that require sensitivity and compassion.

Given all the talk surrounding Yahoo, don’t be surprised if those same board members get to experience being on the other side of the termination table sometime very soon.

If it happens, my guess is that it won’t be done by phone.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.