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Josh Sunsoa

Sunsoa & Co


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Firing people – it’s never personal


Firing people is part of doing business and dismissals happen a lot more than resignations. It's time we dropped the euphemisms. 

There are lots of phrases in business that describe the same thing. In my world, they’re called ‘letting people go’, doing ‘managed exits’ or ‘releasing people’. But is the reason there are so many euphemisms for doing what is actually a core HR role down to the fact most HR professionals find themselves unable to handle them in a business-like and professional way?  I think the answer to this question is a big fat ‘yes’. Why? Because HR still finds itself too wrapped up in the ‘personal’ side of personnel.

OK, let’s be frank, no-one likes a ‘managed exit’; they’re uncomfortable. But, in my experience, they’re destined to be this way because they’re done by HR professionals that simply don’t know how to do them properly. This is dangerous. When this is the case, exits will never be a straightforward process.

"An employee's friend?"

What HR forgets is that, when doing a managed exit, HR is not there to be the employee’s friend. They’re there to act in the interests of the business.  But, what I often see is HR being the former, shying away from their responsibilities. They tell those due to be exited that ‘it’s not my decision’ or ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’ but that’s bad.  They’re not taking proper ownership of the process.

Most HR departments I observe lean too far towards the ‘people’ part of the business and they forget they need to wear their commercial HR hat – one which has the interests of the employer, not the staffer, at heart.  Yes, it’s easy to tell employees that ‘it’s not my fault’ because HR folk want to be known as messengers of niceness.  But what they really need to grasp are the strategic reasons behind why someone needs to go – and then not be afraid to tell this to people.

Fluffy & caring

Part of this problem is the fluffy, caring image HR often wants to portray for itself. It leads it to attracting ‘people-people’ rather than ‘business strategic-people’. Too often HR wants to promote itself as the company nurturers, the department which trains and develops staff.  The problem is, when an exit has to happen, employees are thrown into a situation that seems to be counter to everything HR has been about. That’s why they then become so difficult.

Too often the only way HR knows how to deal with exits is by deferring to ‘policy’ but this too is flawed.  Discussions become so process-driven that all humanity is actually driven out of the process and sometimes even untruths are relied on to explain things.

The point is, that if exits are done properly – and that I mean strategically – they do not have to be totally bereft of the human-touch. The way they do this is not hard but it requires discipline because it requires them to have established the rules first.

To establish the rules, you first have to take a leap of faith. There’s a lots of talk right now about HR rebranding as ‘employee relations’. To me, this is still HR following the wrong path. It still infers too much of a ‘personal’ relationship. Much better is ‘employment relations’. This very simply positions HR as being the supporter of people’s employment but it relates only to the relationship between the employee and their employment.  Viewed like this, ‘employment’ can be couched more as a contract and, with it, can support proper governance with HR being responsible for the conditions of employment.

The importance of an audit trail

Clearly, companies have to operate within the parameters of the law but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the right the hire and fire who it wants. By having an open and transparent policy around the governance of exits, however, the process of doing them will then be clear to all parties. It gives HR an audit trail and the authority they need.

Having proper governance is not incompatible with pursuing other important HR concepts – such as employee engagement. It simply creates rules that everyone can follow and which they have understood from the word go.

Getting rid of someone isn’t personal, it’s just business. The fact is, dismissal happens a lot and more than most people think – certainly more than resignations. All of which makes it so important that it’s done properly with HR realising who their ultimate reports are; the business and the CEO not the person they need to remove.

5 Responses

  1. Is it HR’s role to fire the shots?

    Hi Josh

    Congratulations on an interesting article, which I appreciate may have been intentionally provocative, so forgive me for rising to the bait.

    Is it really HR's role to dismiss?  Many of the organisations to which I have provided consultancy support have effectively devolved people management to the operational manager.   The manager makes the decision and executes the deed, HR having provided a framework of policies and procedures and advisory support that ensures all is fair and objective.

    Regardless of your take on whether HR's overriding allegiance should be to the employer or to the employee, we have a professional obligation to ensure that people management practices are both legally and commercially aligned (usually one in the same). 

    Yes, employers should have the right to hire and fire who they want  – as long as that 'who' is the collective and non-subjective consensus of a power that is non-discriminatory and concerned with the greater good.

    I personally find it difficult to support a managed exit when it is driven by an egotist on a power crazed trip to the top.  It happens.


  2. Good Comment

    Hi Bannie1973, thanks for your comment.

    The article is, of course, just my opinion and your comments are indeed valid; to a degree. Whilst  I acknowledge that lots of people are working hard to ensure that HR as a function is viewed as a genuine business partner and some inroads have been made in that direction, I believe that there is still a long way to go before the majority of organisations accept that HR is indeed a real, value adding business function – beyond paying it lip service and merely expecting it to manage processes and administration. 

  3. Firing someone its never personal

    Dear Josh,

    Your article, while interesting, seems to me to make a lot of assumptions.

    There are many Companies and HR professionals who are well versed in professionally exiting individuals from business.

    I don't doubt that HR still has, to some extent and in places, an image of being a fluffy and caring department. That said, I think you should acknowledge that there are many people working hard to ensure that HR is viewed as a business partner and an enabler with people who are not afraid to undertake activities that operators are often afraid to do themselves.

  4. Comment from Twitter

    We received a comment on Twitter: "Dismissals happen a lot more than resignations." You got any evidence for that?

    Here is Josh's response:

    It’s a fair point. I should have dealt with that in the article. Nonetheless, it is indeed my opinion based on my experiences. Companies have various ways to capture, manipulate and present dismissal and resignation statistics to leadership boards. Commercially, voluminous resignation data from any business is not a good sign.

    The “catch all” dismissals include: performance, capability, redundancy, conduct, Some other substantial reason (SOSR), right to work (or other statutory ban – including qualifications) and ending a fixed term contract (technically considered to be a dismissal).

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