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 In Documentary

I hate having to fire people. Hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate. Over the course of my career, I’ve fired many people. At one point, I had this idea of putting little markings on the side of my office door, similar to fighter pilot victory markings. I was told that’s a bad idea. It was.

Every time I have to let someone go, it’s always the same angst. I wake up that morning earlier than I had planned to. It’s all I think about. I rehearse in my head how it’s going to go. I have a routine. It always goes the same:

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

I figure if I start with that, there’s no backing down. And the worst, well at least the worst for me, is over.

“It’s not something that you did, it’s more us.”

 “To be truthful, I really think that there are better opportunities somewhere else for someone of your skillset.”

 “And you know what, I’d love to be a reference for future job interviews.”

I prefer to end things right there on the spot if I can. No need for long goodbyes, awkward smiles in the hallway. At that point, I cave in on severance terms and suggest that Friday can be the last day. Or today. I call it passive-aggressive HR.

On one such occasion, it took me nearly a month of trying to make this happen. It wasn’t for lack of intent. In fact, by the time the end of the first week rolled around, I was so determined to get the firin’ goin’ that I had wound myself up into a near rage, trying to compile and inflate in my mind all the reasons that “we were going to have to let you go.”

The plan was to do this Monday morning. I got up that morning early, drove into the office without any music or radio playing, in near silence except, rehearsing in my mind all the reasons that it was really about us and not about them. When I got to the office, I was met with an email from the employee telling me that they’re not feeling well and that they were going to take a sick day. Somewhere I felt a little bit of relief at not having to deal with this today.

Tuesday came about and the same story. Early morning. Quiet car ride. No music. Sick day. Ok. This was going to be more challenging than I planned. At that point I also began to suspect that perhaps this was all intentional. The problem is that I’m not very good at hiding my disappointment when someone’s just not working out. It’s in my body language. I no longer look them in the eye. I start to question and contradict their ideas. I’m irritable. More so.

Wednesday was a write off for me as I was out in meetings all day and wasn’t able to catch them, despite them being in the office that day. Thursday was a day of client meetings for them in an attempt to catch up on some of the missed work from earlier in the week and I didn’t want to interrupt that.

Friday rolled around, and I knew that this afternoon was going to be the day. Once again, early morning. Meditative drive in, perfecting the idea construct of firm yet gentle messages that would end my five-day HR disaster. This was it. My plan was to do it sometime around 4pm. It was close enough to the end of the workday so that it didn’t have as much of an impact on the rest of the office and allowed everyone to go out and lament and/or celebrate things at the pub down the road. 4pm.

Shortly around noon, I got a note saying that there’s a family emergency and they had to urgently leave. The catharsis I so longed for suddenly and unapologetically hopped aboard a train and left for the day. I was off travelling for the two weeks that followed and it wasn’t until almost the end of the month that I was finally able to have that conversation.

The whole episode reminded me of an old roommate I had years prior. In many ways, he was an ideal roommate. He tended to stay out all night, while I worked all day, so we never really saw each other. When I got home in the early evening, he had already left for a night of clubbing and returned sometime after I had got up in the morning and went to work. He could have left the country and it would have probably taken me months to realize that he was gone. Eventually, he left the country. I found this out from him when he landed in Stockholm and he asked if I wouldn’t mind packing his remaining things, so a friend could pick them up.

As for this employee, it went from disappointing to toxic to weird to near-parody performance. I suppose it didn’t have to be that way. The better way to have done this would have been to hire properly in the first place. To put a bit more discipline into the process of looking at a lot more than simply someone’s CV. Workplaces can be finicky places and chemistry matters so much. As it does for a perfect roommate.

Financially, it was a mess. It took nearly a month to let this person go. There were months of low output, partially become of my tendency to exclude someone when they are on the way out. Then there was the actual severance. And the angst. On both sides.

So the lesson learned is hire right. Make sure the chemistry works. Don’t rely on the CV alone. And decide whether this is someone whom you’re going to avoid or whether this is someone whom you’re planning on spending time with.

Oh, and do a better job of managing your schedule.