Employee Termination Part 3
I arrived at the office around 8:30 AM. I could barely sleep. After deploying a few bug fixes, I printed 2 letters. One letter of termination in which Sarah acknowledges, and a backup that says Employee Refused to Sign just in case. Tim and I had an appointment to look at new offices from 9 to 11. Walking back from our final appointment, we game planned.
When we fired Sean a few years ago, we really got taken. An actual firing is tense no matter how right or wrong the employee is. The longer it goes on, the more the employee demands you fall for, because you already feel so bad.
At the same time, Sarah was no Sean. Sean was horrible, Sarah did work when really pushed, but other times just wasted time. Still — I just didn’t know what to expect. I felt like she was taking advantage of the job; maybe even any friendship I thought may have developed would be out the window as well. She could have gone postal, she could have destroyed things, or she could have gone quietly, I just didn’t know.
What Tim and I knew was that we needed to give her the opportunity to go in dignity. We owed her that. We decided to tell everyone to leave and that we’d “fill them in later.” Within seconds I take the letters and go with Tim to Sarah’s office.
My face was stone-cold. My leg was shaking. “Sarah, I want to give you the news quickly and directly. We are letting you go. This is a 100% professional decision and has nothing personal with you.”
Sarah: “Ha – ok”
Kunal: <Very nervously> “Alright, here is a letter, please read through it. If you are comfortable, then please sign it.”
Sarah: “Wait you guys aren’t kidding”
She asked for an explanation which I refused to give. I felt that nothing good was going to come out of this. She either was in or was about to be in a state of shock, anything I said would have been without clear thought and would just make matters worse. My expression remained robotic, and she told me “listen Kunal, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, but please do not be so cold about this.”
That struck me. By the time I uttered my first words about letting her go, any feeling of vindictiveness fell out of my body. I immediately thought that someone’s life was about to be changed forever. Every action I made at this critical time would shape someone’s view of them self and their future. This was not the time to make someone feel small — no matter what I may have felt before, I did not want her to fail. Yet, if I showed this feeling, I probably would have cried. Instead, I locked it all in, and gave off this look of pure business mindedness — no compassion.
I tried to loosen up and expressed many times that it was in the interest of the company to not keep her. She reasonably concluded our changing business model had something to do with it, yet I still felt there was no point explaining the months I had spent trying to find a way to keep her.
I moved the conversation to what I felt was most important. I told her again that it was a business decision, not a personal one, and that “our goal here is not to ruin your life.” I explained I looked into her visa situation and that we’d do what we could to avoid her from getting totally shafted. She blurted out that she is actually hearing back from a job offer the next day and just needed us to hold her visa for a week.
She asked for another chance, said that she was owed a warning. If she had known her job was on the line she said, she would have worked a lot harder. During these 3-4 minutes she was spilling lots of core feelings — that she needed this job just long enough to find something else — that please just give her another week. I told her, that was in her benefit, not the company’s — another cold statement.
I also told her it would have ended differently “if she actually worked.” This brutal statement made her question if she had any value in the company. It was unfair of me to say without giving her any inkling that I was monitoring her.
Afterwards, I flashed back to when Coline broke up with me 6 years earlier. I was shocked and totally caught off guard. I started blurting out similar self-salvaging statements like “you can’t leave me, I won’t find someone else as easily” — what a statement to make. Here she put in weeks of thought and in my shock I’m thinking about the immediate impact on myself.
As this went on, I agreed to an extra week. After all we can afford the money. I was starting to crack on my all-business approach, and the personal side came back in.
Sarah signed the papers, we gave her 15 minutes to tidy up. While I reset most of our passwords, I asked Zack to block the rest of the access during our talk. What a horrible feeling it must have been; once I left the room she saw on her screen “your account has been suspended.” Still she held strong and did not cry. She cleaned out some personal files and personal chat accounts; but left all work stuff intact. She left things in an honorable fashion.
Shortly after she walked over to my room and asked to be walked out. She said she still wanted to be friends. I thought that was ironic, here i was being all business; and here she was saying forget the business. On the way out she was tearing up. I let her know again that our goal was not to mess up her life, and understanding the visa situation if she needed more time, I would be more flexible.
She left with with parting advice, that while I was a good person and good boss; I made her feel excluded, something to work on for the next person.
I asked if she wanted to part ways with a handshake, a hug, or neither. She said “I don’t know.” Followed by “a hug.” I teared up too and with that the a major era of the company had ended.
Shortly after she asked for some of her employee access to be restored for personal reasons. I felt she had been honorable throughout the entire process and that I could trust her. At the same time, I continued my H1-B research and found out a loophole she could use to stay longer if she chose to. I also found out she could not collect unemployment. I let her know I was willing to adjust her termination paperwork and set aside money, should her job offer not come through the next day.
Imagine, losing your job, not getting a clear explanation of why, one day after a great company dinner; 7 weeks after a generally positive review. I started to think my warnings about getting work done and coming to work at a reasonable hour may not have been enough, as she said.
I also started to think about what she said about not including her. I realized that if someone needs to be fired – it should either be right away – if it isn’t right away, then the manager shares as much of the blame as the employee. While as I write this I don’t know what the final termination agreement will look like, it seems like we have set aside 2.5 weeks of pay + an offer to let her keep her visa. However when I first presented it, it was a ‘get nothing and get out’
I would be lying if I said her visa situation kept me more emotionally tied to keeping her. I felt like it was my mission to drive her to succeed. When she would take the easier or lazier way, I would get frustrated and instead of taking the time to confront her and coach her, I did indeed shun her. It’s clear from what she said that she noticed. I should have been harder on her from a much earlier stage. If nothing else, this would have been less of surprise to her and would have ended in a much more controlled manner.
Letting go of Sarah was the most human feeling I’ve ever had at the office. It was a recognition that growing a company is not just fun and games; it is in fact a collision of people and their livelihoods. I’m still unclear on what my role should be, but it is clear whatever that role is; it is one that has a profound impact on others.
It’s likely that my company simply wasn’t the place for her and it was a long drawn mistake on both sides.
It’s also possible that she didn’t know how hard she needs to work to have a tremendous career.
I’m hopeful Sarah goes through the stages of shock and grief quickly – and especially hopeful she is able to get that job opportunity. Regardless of what happens, I hope she can look back at this kick in the ass as the best thing that has happened to her career.
For myself, I hope that I can overcome my trait of shutting down all emotion, and remember business is business, but situations like this need compassion.