I’ve seen a number of people fired since I entered the workforce over 25 years ago. Most of the time everyone who has half a brain can see it coming — the person clearly didn’t want to be there, maybe there was something shifty about them that people clearly recognised, or maybe it was apparent to many that their standard of work just wasn’t high enough and wasn’t improving. Regardless, it was clear their days were numbered because they just weren't up to it.
But what about when it’s someone who’s well liked and has a high level of respect?
Every now and then it happens, and it’s always interesting to see how management deals with it. We talk so often about personal branding in these times, and we do our best to carefully ensure that we show our best side at work, lest that personal brand become tarnished in any way. When someone liked and respected leaves the business, now it’s management’s personal brand that’s on show.
Most of the time I’m left disappointed by their response.
That’s because the most common response I’ve seen is for management to do and say nothing. They just act like it didn’t happen. No announcement on the bulletin board, no talking to that person’s immediate team about it, nothing at all. It’s as though they think people won’t notice the gigantic hole that remains, as though their mere absence is going to make people forget everything that person accomplished and how much they loved working with them.
Here’s a newsflash for you: not addressing someone leaving - whether they've been fired or left of their own accord, is going to make everyone notice even more than if you’d written something, anything.
The worst part of such a response is that if the person had sexually harassed another employee or done something similarly egregious, it would have been communicated by management. There would be training courses, memos sent out, and teams notified. It says something about our current reality that someone who was great can leave without a trace, while someone who monumentally fucks up garners more management attention.
What does best practice look like?
I don’t know what HR types would say is best practice, but I know what I see as best practice: confronting it head on and telling everyone the issue. When an employee who is well liked and/or highly respected either leaves the business or is fired, people are going to find out how and why it happened anyway. This is 2021. Even if there wasn’t social media where we can all contact each other instantly, someone is always close enough to the person who left to speak to them and from there, it just filters through the grapevine.
So now you’re going to have a bunch of employees who have one side of the story and will be angry at management for what has happened, because you’ve decided to keep everyone in the dark about what actually went down. When people don’t answer a question in court, it makes us all suspicious, because we know that they’re probably hiding something. If you do the same thing as a manager when everyone has the ex-employee’s side of the story, they’ll assume that it really is your fault.
I can tell you as an individual contributor that we have far more respect for managers who are open, honest and transparent. If an employee who I highly respect and like leaves the business because they felt they were poorly treated and it turns out that they were, I’d rather see it dealt with head on. Imagine this announcement:
“Bob Jones has left the company and his last day will be this Friday. Bob was highly respected and an excellent representative of our values, and anyone who worked alongside him knew that his work ethic had to be seen to be believed. His work on x and y project are the reason we saved $x. He will be sorely missed.
We understand that some will be shocked by this news. If you wish for further detail, please contact the director of personnel, Natalie.”
In this case, Natalie could then tell people openly when asked that there was disagreement over pay. That in hindsight, yes, he should have been offered a lot more. That there were regrettable words spoken and that this shouldn’t have happened. That procedures have been put in place and it won’t happen again.
Imagine the respect from your staff if you do that, as opposed to sweeping everything under the rug.
The reality is that there is nowhere to hide for management these days. If you want to run the kind of company that just sucks the life out of everyone on its way to failure, then absolutely you should just act like whatever you do to your employees doesn’t matter. We’ll all happily watch your business fall off a cliff.
If you want a strong business, however, with engaged employees who will give you their best, you have to do the same. That means being willing to admit mistakes. That means being open and honest, not sweeping everything under the rug. I understand that with HR and legal policies, sometimes you can’t give the whole truth. You can at least say something.
I recall when a colleague of mine abruptly left the company. I had no idea why — she was well liked and very good at her job (at least the part that I saw). Everyone was stunned when she left, because if memory serves, there wasn’t even an announcement. She was just gone. I later found out from someone else who knew someone in management that she was on a performance management plan.
Wouldn’t it have just been better to let people know that? Announce publicly that she’d left the business and then be as open and honest as possible with anyone that asked. Secrecy gains you nothing, but it costs you the respect of your employees. When you try to hide these events, you’re treating them like children, as though because they aren’t in management that they couldn’t possibly handle the information and come to the right conclusions on their own.
That’s not a good look anymore.