The first time I fired someone, it was a debacle.
Why it matters: I was as subtle as a sledgehammer. My lack of finesse — and dignity in delivery — got me an F.
The backstory: It was early 2007. John Harris, one of our Politico co-founders, and I decided we had to let one of our early employees go.
- We called the guy in and I recited all the things he was bad at — and told him he was canned. The poor guy never saw it coming.
- Afterward, Harris turned to me: “Um, I will handle the firing thing from now on.”
The takeaway: We weren’t wrong about the guy’s performance. But we were wrong about how we handled it. With time, I radically reshaped how I thought about letting people go.
First, the obvious: No one wants to fire or be fired. It sucks.
- But here’s a cold, hard truth about running a business: You sometimes hire the wrong person for the wrong job at the wrong time.
You need to act the moment you realize it can’t be corrected. Otherwise, your company or team will suffer and stagnate.
- One of the biggest mistakes managers make is rationalizing not making the hard, right move.
There are ways to do this with grace and class:
- No surprises: By the time someone comes into a meeting to be fired, it should be clear to all what’s about to happen and why. This is where candor matters most: If you’re giving or getting unvarnished feedback — and clear instructions on what needs to improve and on what timeline — the end should be obvious to all.
- Don’t wait: So many people duck hard, uncomfortable discussions. It’s a terrible way to treat people. Anyone who isn’t living up to expectations should know with total precision why — and what they must do to improve.
- Be gracious: Most people don’t get fired for stealing or scandal. It’s usually not the right fit, or right season of life for the company or individual. Be clear and direct, but don’t over-explain or get dragged into a point-by-point debate. The departing employee should take the awful moment to listen, learn and self-correct.
- Be classy: One trick for easing the pain — and stain — of getting fired is giving the person time to leave on their own and find another job from a position of strength.
The bottom line: Now that we practice this approach, we’ve had people later thank us for letting them go, and how it was handled.
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