When I interview someone for a job, I tell the candidate how I would fire him

Make a clean cut.
Make a clean cut.
Image: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri
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Ending a work relationship needn’t be complicated or traumatic. It can be done in a sane and respectful way if a clean framework is set up at hiring time.

In an Aug. 2012 Monday Note titled “The HR-Less Performance Review,” I described a sane, humane way for an employer to conduct the dreaded Performance Review. The script is simple:

Your performance meets or exceeds requirements. You get to keep your job.

Your salary increase is x%.

When you’re ready, allow me to offer a few observations and suggestions that could help improve your performance and our relationship: <Polite challenges and proposed cures, here>

That said, because you’re doing fine as things are, feel free to ignore my remarks.

Now, do you have any questions, complaints, or observations of your own?

And remember, you’re doing fine…

Thank you. End of review.

That’s the template. Of course, there is a second type of review, or, more accurately, there isn’t one. If the individual’s performance fails to meet requirements, the message should be succinct and clear: We need to part company. There’s no need to drag the victim through a painful and pointless Performance Improvement Process. (I will briefly address the in-between pass/fail configuration below.)

The termination of a work relationship can be just as clean and respectful as a positive review… and firing well starts with a sane and honest hiring process.

I’m not referring to the painstaking process that matches skills, credentials, and experience to the prospective position. As long as it doesn’t lapse into a “death by interview“ ordeal, or flirt with bizarre, “mind-bending” questions, the job interview lets both parties read each other and come to a mutual agreement.

Once hired, there is the honeymoon. After that, the real relationship starts, and with it, occasionally, the realization that there are non-technical obstacles that were hard to foresee during the interview courtship.

To ease the pain of the breakup, my standard interview routine includes a segment on Why and How I’ll Fire You.

This is how it goes.

You will definitely be fired for attitude or judgement failures—and note the plural. A single incident can be a great opportunity to reboot the relationship; I’ve experienced several such instances where a healthy confrontation cleared things up for the better and for good.

Business life is tournament play, we have to be competitive. If the organization’s size and composition allows, we will “bench” you, offer a supporting role, especially if you have shown good judgment and a helpful disposition.

But repeated lapses of judgment or a habitually disruptive attitude can’t be tolerated, and we will have to part company. In plain English, I will fire you.

I’ll pause here to note how helpful this is as an interview test. The ideal candidate will shrug: “But of course, no need to stay with a bad situation.” Some will show discomfort—which can then be explored and dispelled with a friendly but frank explanation. As for the rare individual who’s dumbfounded or distraught by the notion of possibly being fired…thanks, we’ll get back to you.

Then I proceed to explain How I’ll Fire You. This is the part that clears up unwarranted doubt and fear.

If the dreaded day comes, I assume you’ll already understand that things aren’t working. No perp walks across the floor to my office. I’ll walk into yours, close the door, ask permission to sit down, and state my business. I’ve made a decision: You have to leave the company.

I’ll tell you that the decision was made after thoughtful deliberation, and it won’t be reconsidered. I won’t suffer you the indignity of why, I’ll only want to discuss the how—what I’m prepared to offer. It will be generous, and it will be accompanied by a Covenant Not To Sue, sundry legal verbiage that caters to reparations, confidentiality, and not taking one another to court. I’d rather give money to you and your family than to lawyers.

That’s as far as you need to go during the interview; anything more would be ghoulish.

If the day comes, the offer should be generous, an amount that sometimes horrifies board members and investors. “What? You’re giving six months to that [expletive deleted]. We shouldn’t be rewarding bad behavior!” (And it could be more than six months, depending on age, the suspected proclivity to sue, the company’s own mistakes, and other issues.)

After the perfunctory ”thank you for sharing” and other exchanges of wisdom, we get to the meat of the matter, paying for a clean, peaceful resolution versus a messy, distracting dispute—one that never endears management to the people performing actual work.

Of course, the employee can refuse the offer and sue, and will very likely win something. But…

It could take years to get there, and the award may be a pittance after legal expenses—if an attorney will even take the case after reading the proposed settlement.

The battle will certainly cause emotional trauma, and a loss of sleep and other pleasure functions.

The ordeal will result in a reputation for litigiousness. Yes, I know: California law forbids giving bad references by phone. But we know the routine: To slam a candidate, all I have to say on the phone is “According to California law, all I’m allowed to do is to confirm job title and employment dates.” The prospective employer promptly hangs up, fully warned.

I learned to fire well after two contrasting turnaround situations in France, in the late eighties. The first was needlessly complicated and acrimonious, but during the second, at Exxon Informations Systems, I was fortunate to meet a savvy attorney, Bertrand Nouel, of the Gide Loyrette Nouel firm. He kindly explained I shouldn’t worry too much about being manacled by French labor laws. A suitably drafted Covenant Not To Sue forestalls legal complications because it generously compensates the individual and is proof of full and informed consent—and provides a bargained-for reparation of the injury, including an offer to pay for legal consultation elsewhere.

It worked like a charm, if that’s the right word, including one case where an unhappy individual was laughed out of the labor inspector’s office and advised to quickly run back to her ex-boss before he’d changed his mind.

Moving to Cupertino in 1985 for another turnaround challenge, I told HR I wanted to use the same process. “Oh, no, you can’t do that in California. You need to give a written warning as part of a performance review [you see why I wrote this HR-less performance review Monday Note]. After that, we’ll take the person through a 90-day Corrective Action Plan. Then and only then can you walk the individual out.”

My protest that this would demean the individual, demoralize the organization with the spectacle of a contrived process, and label management and HR as manipulative bureaucrats wasn’t enough to change the charade.

Later, when I set up the legal framework for Be, I asked our attorney about the process and template developed in France. His answer was diametrically non-HR: “Yes, absolutely, that’s exactly how you should do it. I’ll just touch up your translation of the French template and you’re good to go.”

All of this depends on having a fully informed and consenting adult on board… which is why it’s so important to set things straight during the interview.

In the unlikely event that you reach the point of no return, things will be much less stressful. As promised, you walk into the individual’s office, close the door, and ask for permission to sit…

The last time this happened, the executive saw me close the door and promptly asked: “Is this the conversation? Does the arrangement stand?” Not much left to discuss but the date of his public “my work is done” valediction, with yours truly applauding from the front row.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.