The 5 Things I Learned from Firing People

There are more pleasant words used to describe the process of terminating an employee. You can call it “laid off” or “letting someone go” or “employee separation.” In my company we say that someone has been “deactivated,” which sounds like a setting on a robot. The phrase used to describe it doesn’t matter so much to the person on the other side of the desk.

I am the human resources department for a company that employs over one hundred people in a field with extraordinarily high turnover. The industry is booming and the demand is high. I find myself swimming through an ocean of applications, interview requests, W-2’s, and I-9’s from eight to five, Monday through Friday. It is a daunting task to keep up with the turnover, let alone out hire it. However, hiring and training are the fun parts of my job.

Firing people is miserable. I wish I didn’t have so much experience with it only a few short months into my career.

These are the lessons firing people has taught me:

Lesson Number 1: Firing people is unpredictable.

I may go into a deactivation session thinking I know how things are going to go down, but I am probably wrong. The ones I predict will have a breakdown, don’t. When I am quite sure they will be perfectly professional about it, wrong. There is no way to tell if things are going to go “well” or if they will run from my office crying (happened). Embracing the unpredictable nature of the beast is part of the process.

Lesson Number 2: Firing people is a massive responsibility.

Even though I have other administrative staff advising on the situation, it comes down to me whether or not a person gets another chance. I am their judge and jury. That means that when the decision is made to end someone’s income from my company, I have to be the one who can sleep at night knowing I made the right choice. Sound terrifying? It is.

Lesson Number 3: Firing people requires you to own your biases.

When I take a hard look at why I am firing someone, I had better be absolutely certain that a bias against something they cannot control is not making the decision for me. If someone feels like a “no-brainer” fire, that is a cue for me to go back and look as objectively as possible at the situation. Sometimes my biases are in their favor, but my responsibility is to my employer and the clients we serve. Slowing down, pushing back the meeting, looking over the log book one more time, seeking counsel from other staff…these are the things that help me catch myself before I make a choice that is unjust.

Lesson Number 4: Firing people hurts, even when it was the best decision.

One of the people I deactivated appeared in our lobby the other day. I thought it was my next interview and I was surprised to see her standing there. Calling her posture “standing” is probably not accurate. She was as low as a person could be to the ground while still upright. I asked her if there was something I could help her with and she lifted her hand as if it weighed as much as her body. She handed me a piece of paper and asked if I could fill it out right now, because she needed to eat. I walked back to my office and filled out her unemployment form. I replayed the interaction in my mind: she never looked up at me. I grabbed a granola bar from the stash I keep in my office and filled up the biggest cup I could find with cold water. The walk to the lobby took forever. I handed her all three of the items and wished her the best. She held up the granola bar and said “thank you.”
And I went back to my office and cried.

I have no idea if this person ever had even close to the amount of job training I had. She was twice my age at least, but I had privilege on my side. Maybe she did, maybe she did not. And all I judge her on was her failure to comply with office policy.

Lesson Number 5: Firing people may get easier, but should it?

I have talked to a few of the people in my position in other companies and within my own company. I ask them if they are having the same struggles I have with firing. Most of them have looked at me with a pitying glance and said something to the effect of, “Don’t worry, it gets easier.” I finally asked one of these people what they meant by that and they said, “You learn not to care so much.” It makes sense; maybe there is a limit to how many people you can feel even the smallest bit of sympathy for. Remember, there are people who do this every single day. I don’t know how to escape that fate, but I want to try. I want to try really, really hard. I am actively trying not to run out of cares for these people, even the hard ones. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

Firing people has revealed things in me, taught me lessons, and broadened my perception in a way that nothing else has the command to do. I haven’t been thrilled with what I discovered, but it has been necessary.
Do you have experience on this side of the desk? If you have advice for the new girl (that’s me) I would greatly appreciate it.