29 September 2005

The hardest thing a manager ever has to do

It's no secret and there's not much debate about it: the hardest thing a manager ever has to do is to let people go.

It can be for any number of reasons:
- Finances, as in "sales are down and we need to cut costs"
- Change, as in "the company is changing and job descriptions need to change with it"
- Performance or culture fit, as in "this just isn't working out"

If you are a manager, how do you handle these kinds of situations?
- Be careful about who you hire in the first place. Take interviews seriously. Some companies have a policy to have two people interview any new candidate together. This can give you greater insight into how they will fit in your company.
- Don't avoid difficult conversations. If you see performance issues deal with them immediately. It's important that people know where they stand, especially if you might have to fire them later.
- If your business is changing you may be tempted to design new jobs to fit the people you already have on staff. If you are in doubt, avoid this temptation. Design the job descriptions based on what you need, and then see if you can fit the people in the slots. If you can't, then you need to make the tough calls. You won't do anyone a favor by putting them in a job where they have little chance of happiness or success.
- Don't underestimate the emotional impact on those who are left behind. They will be emotionally shaken by any change, and will also have questions about anything that might need to be done differently. You will need to focus on anticipating and answering their questions -- both emotional and logistical.

Here are some of the questions you should be prepared to answer:
- Why did this happen?
- How will this affect me?
- What do I need to do differently?
- How will we handle the transition?
- What will be different in the future?

Some questions probably won't be asked, but people will look for the answer in your tone and body language, like:
- Is the ship sinking?
- Who's next?
- Are you telling the whole truth?
- Will this place be better or worse now?
- Should I be looking for a new job?

Here are a few rules of thumb for dealing with traumatic situations:
- Don't sugar-coat the truth. Be honest and accurately convey the basic facts.
- Don't make promises you won't be able to deliver on. You may soften the blow now but you'll ruin your credibility forever.
- Admit fault if it's appropriate: if you are a manager you may have contributed to the situation in some way.
- Don't blame your boss or upper management. This only encourages "blame the boss" behaviors. People won't respect you for it, and may emulate the behavior behind your back.
- Don't overexplain. This is one of the most common faults of younger managers. You can find yourself answering questions people weren't even asking, and start digging yourself into a hole where you create more doubts than you resolve. Be brief and to the point, and let people's questions drive your answers.
- Do it quickly. Difficult management moments work like ripping off a bandage: It may hurt just as much but it's over twice as fast.

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Anonymous said...

I sure wish an old manager of mine had read this before he moved someone I knew 3 states away from his home, allowed him to think things were peachy for 2 months and then dumped him the first day after I was gone like yesterday's garbage. Now this guy is in a completely foreign city and state and is seriously questioning his worth, both in his field as well as in his life in general. It's really sad and more than a little frustrating.

Known said...

1. Don't demoralize them.
2. Transparency begets trust and mutual respect.

Unknown said...

Mundlapati, you sound as if you speak from experience.