How To Handle Firing Executive Leaders (Or Being Fired)
7 Lessons for Employers and Employees from Yahoo
It has been fascinating, shocking, and at times uncomfortable to witness the C-level drama coming from Yahoo last week. Just after Labor Day, now-former CEO Carol Bartz was fired over the phone by Yahoo chairman Roy Bostock. Employees are dismissed all the time, but firing executive leaders can be a sticky situation.
It’s never good when people get fired – the person fired has to deal with shame, regret, and a loss of income while summoning the spirit to pick up and move on. Meanwhile, the company needs to refill the role, undo damage that may have been done, and maintain a productive workforce during what is often a tumultuous time. And when the dismissals are high-level and high-profile, the phrase “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” is usually applicable.
Donald Trump’s “You’re fired!” catch phrase has added to the spectacle of people trying (or not) and failing. And of course we watch. Part of the reason is that, especially in America, we love hearing tales of comeback – whether from a physical injury or mental blow such as being fired.
The phone call between Bostock and Bartz was undoubtedly awkward for both sides – Bostock was forced to read the legal department-approved termination notice while Bartz had to listen. It might not have been as noteworthy if it weren’t for the unusual timeline of events and their consequences:
A Timeline of Going from Bad to Worse
- Sept. 6, 6:00 PM: Former CEO of Yahoo Carol Bartz was fired by telephone.
- Moments later: Bartz immediately announced that fact to all Yahoo employees in a terse email.
- Sept. 8, 11:00 AM: Bartz was interviewed by Fortune, during which she used disparaging terms to describe the incident and Yahoo board members.
- Sept. 8, 6:28 PM: Hours later, Fortune published a follow up story with the subtitle “Did ex-Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz just forfeit $10 million by calling fellow board members "doofuses"?” That speaks for itself.
Oops. I’m not sure which is more surprising – that Bartz had a deal for a severance of $10 million, or that she ignored that one minor detail in a fit of frustration and rage. At least it was reported in a respectable media outlet and not carelessly tweeted. But it’s now out there and the final outcome remains to be seen.
There are so many angles and issues with this storyline. Here are some words of advice for both employers and employees when faced with firing or being fired:
Lessons for Employers
1. Assess your people. The more you assess your people, the better you’re able to develop a profile of success in given roles, and the less risk you’ll take in hiring or promoting your talent. If you assess only so often or only for key roles, then you’re only getting a partial picture. While you and your hiring managers might guess right and often, failures and mismatches such as this one remind us what’s at stake.
2. Ensure good job fit. This isn’t just for accountants, but executives, too. Don’t put people into jobs in which they’re more than likely to fail. Avoid the classic blunder of promoting top individual performers into managerial or executive roles for which they’re unsuited. If you’re desperate, perhaps you can agree with the person to test their performance in the new role for a trial period (e.g., three or six months). If it doesn’t work out, then there should be no hard feelings (but good luck with that). What’s most important is that both parties enter such an agreement with “eyes wide open.”
3. Preserve the person’s dignity and respect. Just as you’d expect the person receiving the bad news to handle themselves professionally, companies should remember that they’re dealing with people. Yes, make sure the legal requirements are satisfied and protect yourselves from lawsuit, but remind yourselves that you’re dealing with people and their feelings. Besides, they could go on to bigger and better things, which could benefit your company in some way.
4. Minimize workplace violence and theft. I don’t think there was any risk of Bartz “going postal,” but the phrase exists for a reason. When you need to let someone go, or deliver bad news such as a demotion, watch for changes in behavior that could lead to something serious. If you need to escort the person from your building, do it; it’s better to be safe than sorry. Some companies create policies so that everyone in this situation is treated the same way, hopefully with dignity and respect intact.
Lessons for Employees
1. Reverse coaching. The precursor to this subject is to work hard and not get fired. Of course, sometimes this is inevitable. One way to try to avoid being let go is through “reverse coaching.” We encourage companies to adopt a culture of coaching early and often rather than relying on formal infrequent reviews. If your boss isn’t a coach, try asking for feedback. Asking “How am I doing?” and trying to meet expectations rather than suffering in silence shows that you’re proactive and that you care about your performance. If your performance has been lacking, seeking feedback and help will allow you to improve before the damage has been done.
2. Hold your tongue. As I tell my kids, “If you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything – until we get home.” Show some restraint. In an age when people are putting their every thought out for the world to see on Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+, we might be forgetting that some things are better left unsaid. Be the bigger person and bite your tongue.
Bartz should have known better than to go off on a Charlie Sheen-like rant. Of course she’s mad, and perhaps rightly so. But reign in your behavior or else risk further damaging your reputation – and hefty severance! – through comments such as hers.
3. Be resilient. As I mentioned above, people will want to see what you’ll do next. Maintain dignity and stay out of the name-calling gutter. If you’ve been wronged, then seek legal advice first to see if you have a case. But always keep your head held high and look for your next opportunity. These difficult times can sometimes lead to remarkable turnarounds. Help yourself to go “from rags to riches” by staying focused and refraining from stooping to undesirable levels.
Image credit: http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-3272282080