The Best and Worst Ways to Fire Someone

A firing is never fun. AOL's Tim Armstrong did it publicly--and impetuously. Here, Inc. columnists give examples of bad firings and better suggestions.

Last week, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong was giving a morale speech to employees of Patch, an underperforming AOL division. Partway through the call, you can hear him impulsively react and fire the creative director. It was abrupt and shocking to the 1,000 employees on the call. Armstrong apologized yesterday, but maybe he shouldn't have.

As a CEO, I have fired well over 100 people. It was never fun or easy on morale. Staff would complain when I fired people in the morning because they said it affected their whole day. When I fired people at the end of the day, the staff complained I was rude for making the person work the whole day before letting them go. What I've learned for sure is that there's just no pleasant way to fire someone. But it is necessary for the healthy growth of any company.

You could argue that Armstrong's action was healthy for morale because it set the tone for the difficult turnaround ahead. Or you could argue it was an inappropriate example of temper and power abuse. If it hadn't made news, the truth would have surfaced in the performance of Patch and its culture from here on out.

Whatever your view, your firing policy should fit the culture of your company so expectations are clear for all, ultimately reducing the trauma and the drama.

And here's more insight from my expert colleagues:

1. Share Only What You Must

I was a young Vice President running a development shop for a technology startup. I hired one developer full-time and contracted with another for 3 months to work on a financial system. At the end of that period, the developer I had hired was causing all kinds of internal turmoil and had become a serious HR problem. I made the decision to offer the contractor a full-time job and let the troublemaker go. I mistakenly shared my plans with the contractor in hopes this knowledge would help make the transition smoother. He then shared my plans with the developer I planned to fire. I ended up letting them both go. Eric V. Holtzclaw--Lean Forward

Want to read more from Eric? Click here.

2. Be Decisive and Intentional

President George W. Bush's 2006 firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was another bad firing. Bush's problem wasn't the move, but waiting years too long to make it, thus projecting an image of indecision and impetuousness. Contrast that with President Truman's 1951 decision to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur, or President Obama's 2010 firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Both were politically risky, but purposeful and swift. Here, Armstrong apparently fired Lenz for taking his photograph just after insisting he didn't care about leaks. (Mixed messages?) Dramatic firings can be useful, but impetuous moves overshadow everything. The way you handle this decision reflects the kind of leader you are. Bill Murphy Jr.--DC Bill

Want to read more from Bill? Click here.

3. Be Respectful

Patch was such a flawed venture from its inception that AOL's CEO was under enormous pressure. Now, we weren't in the room and there could have been horrible behavior (mooning comes to mind) that warranted the bizarre, intemperate and grossly unprofessional act that took place. I'm all for publicly pointing out mistakes because open criticism helps not just the individual, but the group as well. Immediate action can resolve tough, negative situations, but firings don't have to be public where collateral damage to the remaining people's morale is worse than the sins of the guy being booted. If you need to do it and do it immediately, you still need to have the grace to do it in private. Howard Tullman--The Perspiration Principles

Want to read more from Howard? Click here.

4. Be Clear and Firm

Firing people stinks, no matter how you look at it. It's just not fun. Unfortunately, I've had to let people go through my years leading Likeable. My worst firing was one of my first: Because I felt bad, I let the employee I was trying to fire to reason with me for nearly an hour. He cried, begged and pleaded, and I humored him. It was unnecessarily long and left both of us feeling defeated. In an effort to be reasonable, I made things way worse. Remember: you can be kind, yet clear and firm from the start, when you say, "It's over." Dave Kerpen--Likeable Leadership

Want to read more from Dave? Click here.

5. Hold Your Temper

Leaders these days are in a bind. They're expected to be less like corporate entities and more like human beings--but they still have to know how to keep their human feelings in check. Talking to a thousand people, many of whom will lose their jobs, is wrenching enough without someone popping a camera in your face. Armstrong's response was all too human but it still landed him--and Patch--in a world of hurt. He learned the hard way: it's good to show human emotion, but never, ever let your temper drive your decisions. Minda Zetlin--Start Me Up

Want to read more from Minda? Click here.

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