Recent comments on LinkedIn, in response to the Oklahoma gun law article I wrote last week, reminded me of an event from my own past. One of the comments made was related to having to make sure employers had good policies in place when it came to firing – the employee, not the weapon. When I read this comment I thought about the worst termination I've ever had to do.
In the ‘90's I worked in Human Resources for a very large, multi-billion dollar software company. I know that some of you will engage in fits of laughter over the notion of me, someone who's thinks the phrase “grow a pair” is a diplomatic retort, being in HR. But I was, and I have good memories of my time with that company. I've had to terminate many people over the years, both in HR and as operations management, and it has never been something I enjoyed doing. But once in a while a certain termination sticks with you, and you end up remembering them for the humor surrounding the event. This is one such tale – a Dilbert moment if there ever was one.
I received a call one day from “Sue”, my boss in New York. We had a situation in our Atlanta office, and our HR person for that area had recently left the company. I was asked to fly to Atlanta and terminate an employee. This wasn't just any employee; this was a man who had over 15 years with the company. On many levels he had been a great contributor, however, he had anger issues which had been documented in the past, and a recent event was the final straw. He had thrown his office telephone “through a wall”, and other employees were frightened of him. The man, who I will call “Bill”, had to go.
And it was my job to be there for the event.
A few background notes: This particular company went through managerial reorganizations just about every year, the purpose of which was never clear to me, except to insure that nobody knew who they were working for during a good part of the year that followed. We had just completed one of these re-orgs prior to my Atlanta journey, with the result that Bill did not know his immediate supervisor, or his supervisor's boss, the man that ran their department. None of the three had ever met. The company was also known for promoting very proficient and skilled technical people, who knew their jobs well. Unfortunately, that did not always make them outstanding managers. There is a notable difference between the two skill sets.
I arrive in Atlanta, and meet Bill's immediate supervisor. I do not recall his name, so for purposes of this story I will call him “Schmuck”. Schmuck and I sat in the HR office and spoke with his boss, “Philippe”, and my boss Sue, both in New York. Sue knew the man we were about to terminate, and calling him a “big teddy bear”, took great pains to make sure that Philippe, who would be handling the actual termination by phone, was properly prepared to handle this task. For ten minutes or so she reviewed the points he would need to cover; We respect his long tenure with the company, we have had the previous issues that have been addressed with him, he has been aware of his temper issues, unfortunately he has created a situation that is not tenable, and while extremely regrettable we have no choice but to let him go. Her overall message was straightforward, but also tender and respectful. She truly felt bad for what was happening to this man, and the way in which it was about to happen. Philippe listened, indicated he understood the importance of handling this delicately in the manner that had been presented, and we were ready. For this termination Philippe would do most of the talking via phone, Schmuck would sit there like a lump, and I, having removed all small objects and potential projectiles from the desk and surrounding area, would either be witness to, or participatory in, whatever carnage would soon reign down upon us.
Schmuck, whom Bill had never met, went to Bill's office to retrieve him. He brought him in, and introduced him to me, an HR rep he had never met. He was introduced to Philippe, his department manager, whom he had never met. I looked at Bill, an impressively sized specimen, wondering how this scene was all going to play out. The fact that Bill sat between me and the door was not lost on me.
Philippe, who spoke with a heavy French accent, started. He said, “Well Bill, you know we have had some issues, and we have looked at this… and well, you are fired”. Then he quickly added, “Well, I have to go. Have a nice day!” And it was done. A ten second termination. As Philippe finished and hung up the phone, Schmuck waved a little “see ya later” wave and scooted out of the office, leaving Bill staring at me across the desk with a look on his face that said “I can't believe I spent 15 years working for these morons.”
In the end, it worked out ok. And by “ok” I mean he did not kill me. Bill, as it turns out, really was a big teddy bear after all. I processed his paperwork, explained his rights and benefits, told him to grow a pair, and then arranged for him to clean out his office and turn in all his credentials. I was able to return to my home in one piece, none the worse for wear.
Years later, when watching the George Clooney movie “Up in the Air”, a story about people paid to fly around the country and terminate people they had never met, I thought of that day, and how similar some of the scenes in the movie were to that moment. It really was a terrible way for a man's career to end. Terminations are never fun, but they should always be respectful. You are taking their job, not their dignity. I have always tried to remember that. I am hard pressed to remember one termination I've performed where the person didn't shake my hand and thank me at the end. Knowing that Oklahoma joins the ranks of 25 states that let's its citizens “open carry”, and that employers cannot restrict them from keeping weapons in their car, should only give more credence to that dignified approach.
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