The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What’s the best way to deliver bad news to your team? is written by Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company.
The first employee I ever hired at Know Your Company was my accountant. She was a successful businesswoman with her own firm and numerous high-profile clients. And she was someone I had looked up to since I was 19.
However, she had made a few crucial mistakes in our bookkeeping and invoice collection—mistakes that were too big to ignore. I knew it wasn’t a lack of competence that had caused her to make these mistakes. Rather, she had other, larger clients that were taking up her time.
I was torn. This is a person who’d seen me hostessing at a restaurant in order to earn the money to start my own business. She had believed in my company and me before we had a single customer. I don’t take that loyalty lightly. However, I eventually decided to let her go. I knew it was in the best interest of the business in the long run, but it was important to me that I deliver this bad news with incredible tact and respect.
Here’s how I did it:
Deliver bad news as soon as you know it
There is never a “right time” to tell an employee something bad—especially if you’re firing her. You’ll want to come clean as quickly as possible.
When it comes to firing someone, chances are your other employees are already thinking, “Why is this employee still here?” If an employee is chronically underperforming, most of your other employees have noticed, and they’re wondering why you still haven’t done anything about it.
So, the minute I decided firing our accountant was the right move to make, I immediately wrote her an email scheduling a time to sit down with her. The sooner she knew the reality of the situation, the sooner she could move on and continue growing her own business.
It serves no one to pretend that “everything is okay” when it isn’t.
Make it about the business
When you’re letting an employee go for performance reasons, it’s easy for the conversation to take a negative turn. You’re pointing out professional flaws—and that never feels good.
However, instead of focusing on the person’s skills, attributes, and shortcomings, focus on the business. Zoom out and show your employee the big-picture needs of the business. Then, as objectively as possible, discuss how her or his contributions are not matching up with those needs.
For example, I told our accountant that I needed to think about the long-term sustainability of the business—that as we grow, our financials would only become more complex and time-consuming. I needed to bring on someone who could dedicate the time and focus to us and avoid certain mistakes.
When you make it about the business, there’s a less personal tone to it. Your employee won’t get as defensive, and your parting will feel much more amicable.
When you’re telling someone bad news, you’re often preoccupied with communicating your own message. This is understandable (you are relaying some tough news, after all), but you have to keep in mind what your employee must be thinking and feeling: shock, confusion, sadness, and loss of control.
As a result, give your employee the opportunity to respond and weigh in. Ask directly: “What do you think? How are you feeling about this?”
By simply listening, you allow the employee the space to own the conversation, as well. You’re also demonstrating that you’re concerned about how the employee is interpreting this news. The best way to show respect is to listen (and reading how the news is received will be helpful for you should you have to let someone else go down the road).
I made sure to do this when I told my accountant we were going our separate ways. I asked her how she felt about the decision, and she talked and talked and talked. She unloaded details of how full her plate was and how crazy things were for her.
I listened, never cut her off, and allowed her to absorb the news. And when we were done chatting a few hours later, we hugged and wished each other the best. We remain friendly to this day. In fact, just the other day, she sent me the nicest note congratulating me on all the progress we’ve made with Know Your Company.
If I hadn’t been willing to just listen for an hour or so when we parted ways, I doubt the same outcome would have occurred.