In this episode, Chip and Gini conclude the two-part series on hiring and firing in PR and marketing agencies.

Chip kicks it off by firing Gini. (Fret not, ALP fans … it was a joke.)

Gini explained that, “I’m very bad at it. I let people go far longer than I should just because … it’s a very personal thing.”

Chip agreed that “in some cases, I have been too slow to fire.”

“As you’re growing an agency, there are going to be situations where there’s not really a fireable offense that happens, it’s just that … the business has outgrown somebody on your team or members of your team,” Gini said.

What about the actual termination process itself?

“If I see an employee and a supervisor, go behind closed doors for a termination and it lasts more than three to five minutes, something went horribly wrong,” explained Chip.

Gini also touted the benefits of having a specific process in place. “Because we learned the lesson, we have a checklist of everything that we need to do, either when somebody leaves  of their own free will or when they’re let go.”

The hosts wrapped up by agreeing that most terminations look like the right decision in the rearview mirror.

“Not a fun thing. But you’re exactly right. In the end, it ends up being better for everyone,” Gini concluded.

Transcript

CHIP:
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership podcast. I’m Chip Griffin…

GINI:
and I’m Gini Dietrich.

CHIP:
and Gini, you’re fired!

GINI:
You know, that brings me back to The Apprentice. You’re fired. If only he would have stayed doing that.

CHIP:
Yeah. Well, I think we probably should leave politics out of this podcast….that’s a rabbit hole that I’m sure we could go down. But I suspect that we would end up pissing off listeners, if not ourselves, so, we’ll avoid that. But it nevertheless it is the subject of this show. Because as we promised in our last episode, where we talked about hiring, if you’re willing to hire, you have to be prepared to fire so and you know, hiring’s a lot easier than firing.

GINI:
It is, but in some cases, cases it is necessary. But it is not an easy thing to do. And before we started recording, we talked a little bit about it. I’m very bad at it. I let people go far longer than I should just because…it’s a very personal thing. And I’m very, very bad at it. I’m very bad at it.

CHIP:
Well, frankly, most people are and there’s two pieces to that. So one is waiting too long. And and, and then the second piece is how you actually transact the firing, if you will. And, you know, and I, you know, I admit that in some cases, I have been too slow to fire. And so, you know, we should talk about figuring out, you know, when is the right time because you don’t want to do it too soon, you know, and give up on someone who there’s still hope for, but at the same time, if you draw it out, that doesn’t work out well, for anybody. And then, of course, the, you know, the process itself is, is just as important. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why people hold off on the actual firing because they – they’re either scared of or, you know, uncomfortable with the process itself.

GINI:
Yes. And I also think there’s a piece to it too where you do, I mean, to your point, you want to make sure that you’ve given them every chance that they can possibly have. And I think as you’re growing an agency, there are going to be situations where there’s not really a fireable offense that happens, it’s just that somebody – the business has outgrown somebody on your team or members of your team and you, like, there’s no real reason for it, except they’re just not the right people in the right seats to take you to the next level, then that one’s hard too.

CHIP:
Yeah, and that’s, that’s a lot harder, I mean, the terminations for cause, you know, those are, those are easy, and frankly, I enjoy them, right?

GINI:
That does not surprise me about you.

CHIP:
Well, look, if it if it’s for cause, I mean, that means someone has violated a policy or done something truly egregious and I have had a number of those over the course of my career, unfortunately. And, you know, there’s always, you know, as difficult as it is going through those, there’s a certain sense of satisfaction after the fact because, you know, you’ve rid yourself of a clear problem. And, and, frankly, somebody, you know, usually in those cases who, you know, flouted the rules so badly that it was, you know, it’s a no brainer to take action, you know, but the, the tougher ones are the ones where someone’s just the wrong seat on the bus. And of course, the absolute hardest, are just straight up layoffs. Because you – you don’t have the work for that individual. So yeah, that’s if you think of it as a continuum, you know, that they become increasingly more difficult, and the less specific reason you have for moving on.

GINI:
Yeah, and it’s not a fun thing, either, because, especially for business owners like us, you know, you you don’t have 1000 employees, where you’re separated from that, right. Yeah, I mean, for most of us, we have employees or contractors that – or both – that become part of your family and they’re friends. And it’s, it’s, it becomes, it’s hard to balance that personal and professional line. And so when you have to make a decision that’s best for the business, it’s really hard to do that when you have personal feelings for that person as well.

CHIP:
Right. And, and it’s, you know, not only do you have the, the personalities involved, but when you’re at a smaller size, you know, letting someone go is, is a lot more challenging, because, you know, assuming that they are at least doing work, that means that that’s workload that has to be covered. And, you know, in a larger organization, it’s a lot easier to sort of make that decision because, you know, you know, you, you can let Johnny or Sally go, and, you know, you’ve got other people who can sort of pick up the slack. But if you’re a small team, you know, if you’re a company, you’re an agency with 10 people, or 15 people, 20 people, even, it’s, it becomes a lot more challenging to do it, and you don’t have any kind of, you know, sometimes if you’re, if it’s a performance one, you know, you’ll start the recruitment process early in a large organization, you can do that, you know, without waving a red flag. And in most cases, the smaller you are, the harder it is to sort of jumpstart your recruitment process and, and be more prepared. So chances are, you’re going to be starting flat footed after the termination.

GINI:
Yeah, that’s a really good point. It’s Yeah. And sometimes the responsibility goes back to you as the owner.

CHIP:
Absolutely. Because as the owner, I mean, pretty much anything that’s not getting done falls to you.

GINI:
Yup. So yeah, it’s, it’s challenging from that perspective as well.

CHIP:
But, but, but ultimately, you know, my experience has been, I’m curious if you’ve seen the same thing that generally speaking, when you do let someone go, it – you look back on it and say, Oh, you know, that that was the right thing for the business. And frankly, a lot of times, it’s the right thing for that individual too. Not always, but more often than not, they weren’t in the right place either. So, you know, it gives them an opportunity to find a better fit, where hopefully they end up being happier as well.

GINI:
Yeah. And it’s funny, because I always say this, as soon as you rip the band-aid off, it’s always much better, always. And especially when it’s somebody that needs to go, and you just keep putting it off and putting it off, putting it off, and then you’re mad at yourself, because you didn’t do it sooner. Because things get significantly better, morale improves, you know, your team stops looking at you, like, you’re a loon, because you keep this person on, your life gets less stressful, there’s a whole bunch of ancillary benefits, but for some reason, actually taking a hold of that band-aid and ripping it off is really challenging.

CHIP:
Right. Well, and, you know, I think a lot of this comes down to, to looking at the individual cases and figuring out, okay, you know, how do I know it is time to let someone go, right, you know, you’ve got, you know, we’ll set aside the for cause, because, you know, we’ll assume everybody can identify a for cause situation. Now, the way you handle that kind of a termination is different. So, we’ll, we’ll talk about that when we talk about the the actual process at the end, but from a decision making process, you know, that really comes into play where the person is the wrong seat on the bus, or you just don’t have enough work. And so those tend to be the cases where agency owners will linger with the decision and kind of stick with it too long. And it’s it’s trying to, you know, I think, in some cases, employers of all sorts feel like they can rehabilitate an employee, you know, that, yeah, I just, you know, and, and I think, you know, one of my least favorite things are performance improvement plans. I think those are worthless, they are, they are simply postponing the inevitable and I generally advise people, the only time you should use a performance improvement plan is if, for some reason, you feel like you need to have some additional documentation in a particular case, that you tried everything you could to make it work, but in the entirety of my career as a boss for 25 years or so, I cannot think of a single case where a performance improvement plan ever worked.

GINI:
Yeah…

CHIP:
It may have developed short term improvements of a miniscule nature, but certainly it didn’t turn around the employer-employee relationship. So, you know, so my advice is, if you feel like you need to go to a PIP, you really probably just need to figure out how to go to a termination.

GINI:
Yeah, and I agree with you. I mean, unless you’re in a gigantic corporation, where it’s – HR requires it, then you don’t need the all that extra documentation.It reminds me of – I was very, very young in my career, I was maybe maybe two years out of college. And there was a young woman in our office who went on a PIP and they wanted to give me – they wanted to see if I had any management leadership chops at that point. I mean, I’m like, 24 years old, whatever. But I mean, it was nice for them to give me the opportunity. So what they said was, we’d like for you to take her on and work her through this process, and help her keep her job at the end. And I went into it full gung ho, like, we’re going to do this and that, and I’m going to check in with you. And it pissed her off so badly, not only because they had assigned someone to her, but because I was five years younger than she was…that she quit the next day. And I was kind of like, what, what did I do wrong? And they it took them a really long time to admit that they knew she wasn’t going to stay. They just wanted to see how I would handle it. And I was devastated because she lasted a day under – quote, unquote, underneath me, so avoid that, too. But, um, yeah, I think you’re right. I can’t think of a single time in my entire career where that has been implemented, where it’s worked.

CHIP:
But it’s interesting that you, you had a boss who sort of tested you early on because I had a very similar situation where I was, I believe, I was 23 and I had been recruited to become CEO of, of a tech company and, and the story behind that’ll be a fun one to tell some other day, because I actually laughed at the chairman of the board when he first broached the idea because I thought he was kidding.

GINI:
Right? I would, too, I’d be like, Oh, thanks.

CHIP:
Yeah, but, you know, this was, this was the, you know, the, the height of, of the internet craze, just shortly after Netscape went public. And, and so young people were all the rage. And I was, I had tech savvy. So, you know, they figured would work. In any case, so I was recruited to come in and try to fix this company as another CEO was leaving. And so my first day on the job, the chairman of the board, thought that it would be good experience for me to supervise the last CEO cleaning out his office. And – who was 20 something years, my senior.

GINI:
Oh, no.

CHIP:
And so, so that was my, my first thing. And then, you know, a few months in to that particular job, I had a two terminations for cause on the same day. And so, you know, we, we had some HR support, but, but he decided that it would be a good learning experience for me to handle them myself. And so he got the HR people to give me advice on how to handle it. But he wanted me to be the one who actually did it. And, you know, I mean, it was incredibly stressful at the time. Yeah, but, but it was, I think it was one of the best things for me was to learn how to do that. And so I actually now when I have young managers who work for me, I try to find opportunities like that for them, so that, you know, that they are that they are getting that experience early on, because part of the reason why so many managers are reluctant to deal with these things, just because they they’ve never had to deal with it.

GINI:
True. Fair, that’s very fair. Yep.

CHIP:
And the unknown is always scary to people.

GINI:
Of course, and it’s scary in general, let alone if you’ve never done it.

CHIP:
Right. And so, you know, you want to make sure that you’re, you know, in addition to sort of, you know, figuring out the right time for it, you know, you also want to make sure that you’re getting the right advice. And so, you know, that means that, you know, you are talking with an HR advisor, whether that’s you’re big enough to have an HR department in house, or whether that means you’re small, and you work with an HR consultant on the outside, I would tell you that, that any time you’re preparing to make a termination decision, unless you’re super experienced, you probably ought to be talking with an HR advisor, just to make sure that there are no pitfalls that you are not thinking of.

GINI:
Yeah, yes.

CHIP:
Because, you know, that can be, you know, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble if you handle a termination incorrectly.

GINI:
Yeah, yeah, a lot of legal trouble, even if you just say the wrong word, you can get in a lot of trouble,

CHIP:
Right. And I recently had an agency executive say to me, you know, well, Geez, you know I don’t really need to worry about this, that that individual doesn’t have any kind of legitimate claim. And I said, what, it doesn’t matter whether they have a legitimate claim, it’s whether they can make a case, you know, it’s relatively easy to start a complaint process here in the United States. So you want to make sure that you are, you know, protecting yourself so that you don’t end up in a place you don’t want to be.

GINI:
Right. And I think also being up on unemployment laws and all that, too, because you’ll you’ll, you’ll pay unemployment and you have to be up to speed on what it what that means for the business and how that affects you. Because it does and what that looks like, for the former employee as well.

CHIP:
Yeah, and it’s, you know, and, and, you know, things can can suddenly change. So, I had a case a number of years ago, where I was getting ready to let an employee go, because the business had changed. And the very day that I was planning to do that, that employee came into my office to let me know that she was pregnant.

GINI:
No!

CHIP:
I said, Well, I guess I know what I’m not doing this afternoon. Yeah, you know, you just… That’s that’s not gonna – and, and, you know, but those are the kinds of things that you have to be, you know, very aware of very careful about. And so, if you’re, you know, if you’re working with an HR advisor, you know, they can help make sure that you are, you know, making the decisions and timing them well, from a business perspective, but then they can help you with the actual process. And I think, you know, the process is a piece that we ought to talk about here, because, you know, far too often I see firing processes go wrong, because someone didn’t really think it through. Right, right. And it’s, you know, firing is, you know, you need to make the decision quickly, but you don’t want to make it rashly and you don’t want to act rashly.

GINI:
Yes.

CHIP:
But it’s very easy to do, right. Because a lot of times, terminating someone, you’re frustrated with them.

GINI:
You’re frustrated or you’re angry, or…right.

CHIP:
Right, I mean, you know, before I had employees, I had hair, you know, subsequently I’ve pulled it all out, you know, and it’s, it can be frustrating, but you have to make sure that, you know, when you get to that final process, you know, that there’s no place for that frustration, right? That, you know, that the and I often tell people, I can tell how well a termination has gone based on how long the door is closed, right? So, if, if I see an employee and a supervisor, go behind closed doors for a termination and it lasts, you know, more than three to five minutes, something went horribly wrong.

GINI:
Yeah, I agree.

CHIP:
Because there’s no no reason for it to go that – At its simplest element, it is simply you sit down, you don’t make small talk, you don’t talk about the weather, you know, you just you rip that band-aid off right away, you’ll – I mean like the second they’re in the seat. You just you explain what’s happening. You -hopefully you’ve prepared paperwork properly. I’m nodding my head, because I’m hoping that everybody’s nodding their head. Of course, I would have the proper paperwork. Yes. Yes. Course. Yes. But again, that’s one where it goes wrong. Because someone just calls gets called in the office, you know, you know, I’m letting you go, Okay, well, what, you know, what would I get for severance, what are the terms, you know..

GINI:
And you haven’t thought any of that through.

CHIP:
No. You need to think that through, and you need to put it all in a document that, you know, that that there’s very clear about what the employer will do from a financial standpoint. And otherwise, what the employee will do from a you know, typically, you would have them release any claims against the company in exchange for their severance, you know, but those are all things that you need to work with your HR advisor on. And in some cases, an outside law firm, particularly if someone’s in any kind of an arguably protected class where, you know, you want to make sure that you are documenting everything appropriately.

GINI:
Right. Yes. And I would also say, have a checklist of things that you need to do on the back end, once they leave, such as forwarding their email, taking, taking away access to Last Pass, or another password manager, taking them out of Google Suite, taking away their access to the website, like all that stuff that you – you need to do. We actually, because we learned the lesson, have a checklist of everything that we need to do, either when somebody leaves on – of their own free will, or when they’re let go. But it’s a checklist of everything that we need to make sure happens so that it’s all seamless. And you know, that for the most part, people are not, what’s the word I want, they’re not looking for revenge, but there’s going to be that one or two, two times that that does happen. And like I said, we learned that lesson pretty – the wrong way that you need to have all of that taken care of. And if you have somebody that you trust, if there isn’t somebody on your team, but if you have some partner that you trust to shut off email, and that kind of stuff, have them do it while you’re in the meeting with that person.

CHIP:
Right. I mean, it that, then that is really the, the ideal scenario is that you’re – that all of that is being taken care of simultaneous with the meeting itself. And, and I always explain to departing employees, it’s, it’s as much for their protection as for the company, right, because if they don’t have access, then nobody can accuse them of having done something, right. So, you know, if, if the system crashes the next day, you know, and you didn’t have access, it’s hard to blame you, right? So it actually is beneficial for them not to have access because, you know, the natural tendency any time, you know, there’s a problem after an employee leaves us to think, oh, did they have something to do with that, and 99.9% of the time they had nothing to do with it, right? Because most terminations go just fine. This is not like, the movies where, you know, people, you know, go crazy, it does happen, I mean, I, you know, I have, I have done enough terminations in my career that I have had some go sideways, I’ve had them go sideways in the meeting, I’ve had them go sideways, afterwards, I’ve had some go sideways, you know, a few days later, which is, which is the most unusual usually it’s the first 24 hours is, you know, if something’s going to transpire, that’s where it will, but you know, it, you know, you take the steps that you can to protect yourself to protect the employee. And, and, you know, just, you know, be straightforward about it. And, you know, to that end, once the termination is over, they need to leave the building. Yeah, it’s not, you know, you don’t need to frogmarch them out. But, you know, you, you don’t want to let them you know, kind of get back on their computer, hang out with the staff, you know, they want to meet up with folks later for a drink to commiserate, fine, so be it. But, you know, you want to move them out of the office as quickly as possible. Because, again, that’s, it’s for everybody’s protection, right, that you do that. And then, of course, you want to make sure that you’re meeting with the rest of your team to as as as much as you can, to communicate what has transpired, obviously, that the individual has left if you’re, you know, if it happens to be an occasion where you have multiple terminations simultaneously, you know, often because you’re reorging or downsizing or anything like that, you need to make sure that you’ve got clear messaging. But, you know, another mistake that I see a lot of folks make is they don’t communicate at all to the rest of the team.

GINI:
Well, that’s a problem. So-and-so just doesn’t show up the next day.

CHIP:
Well, yeah, I mean, well, they, they see the individual leave, right, right. It tends not to be that subtle, in most office environments, obviously, in a virtual place it, you know, it can be much odder, you know, the, but, you know, and actually, that’s, you know, we should talk about process at a virtual environment, because that, that it does create some interesting challenges. But, you know, so if we’re talking about communicating with the rest of the team, you really need to do that. Because otherwise, people will fill it in with their own ideas, the rumor mill will take over, you know, if you’re it, particularly if you’re having any kind of financial issues as an agency, other people will start to wonder, you know, am I next? And, and so you want to communicate and, and I would tell you, if you are reorging or downsizing, do it all at once, don’t do it piecemeal. Because, you know, if you do something today, and then three days later, or a week later, you do another one, you know, it’s the drip, drip drip death by 1000 cuts. So, you know, if you’re going to be making changes, figure out what all those changes are, make them all at once, and then meet with the team and say, Look, you know, we can’t guarantee the future. But this is, this is all we plan to do. And so let’s let’s come together as a team and move forward because it’s that internal communication piece that’s just so important, and so often overlooked.

GINI:
And I would also say, going back to your initial comment about talking to somebody who has HR expertise – is the same thing there with the messaging that you do internally, because you can’t vomit out everything that happened. And you can’t talk about necessarily why they were terminated either. So you have to make sure that you’re covered from that perspective, everyone will know especially if it’s a person that that needs to go, everybody’s going to take a big sigh, a big breath of relief, because they’re going to be like, finally, he or she did this, like, where have your balls been all this time? Thank you. But you still have you still have some legal ramifications about what you can and can’t say.

CHIP:
Yeah. And, and, you know, honestly, you want to keep it simple, not just with the rest of the team, but with the individual that you’re terminating, as well. You know, one of the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen made in the actual termination meeting is that the, the supervisor wants to itemize the faults of the departing employee, right, not just – you want to get it off your chest, or in many cases, the employee will ask why, you know, why is this happening? And for some reason people feel compelled to fill that space. And answer that. Don’t. Just say this is not working out, you know, it’s best for both of us to move in different directions, this is it, you know, kind of keep it really short, sweet, simple, do not get into details. And, and any HR advisor is going to give you, you know, sort of a variation on this same theme. But, you know, there’s, there’s no reason to get into the weeds on that kind of thing, either with the employee or with the rest of the team, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the employee. Yeah, right. I mean, if you’re terminating someone for anything other than financial reasons, and it comes as a complete surprise to the employee, you’re probably not having good one on one communications with them as part of your overall working relationship anyway, right? Because people should know if they’re on thin ice.

GINI:
Alright, so four takeaways, I would say. Number one, talk to an HR consultant, or somebody who has expertise in this. Pay for that advice, because it’s worth it in the long run. Number two, have everything documented on paper so that you can hand them their paperwork, and all of their questions about severance, and unemployment, and all and COBRA and all that kind of stuff will be answered that they can look at later. Number three, make sure you have a checklist of things that need to be shut off or turned off when they leave. And number four, internal communications.

CHIP:
You know, I think that that nails everything, I mean, there’s obviously lots of little nuances in there. But if you do those four things, you know, your terminations are going to go much better, as painful as they are as difficult as they can be, you know, that it really does tend to work out best for everyone. At the end of the day, it just may not feel like it for a little bit of time. But it does, it does for sure. And you know, that’s the other piece, you know, where you want to talk with your HR consultant about, you know, the timing of these, right, you know, so as part of your process, thinking about, you know, when in the day, when in the week, do you do it, you know, and those are things that can be sometimes team dependent, but think through those things. And then, you know, I had said that we should touch on the virtual aspect. And I think we should, because you know, that that’s a topic that is near and dear to your heart, obviously, running a virtual company, and in a virtual business, it’s a little bit more challenging, right, because you don’t just bring someone into your office and have this conversation. So, you know, they’re going to tend to see it coming further out. So, you need to account for that in your checklist and try to think about, okay, you know, if I schedule some – because ideally, you want to do these in person, you may not be able to in every virtual environment, and, you know, certainly if you are doing it in person, that can be an immediate red flag, you know, I mean, if I’m suddenly coming to your city, and I never come to see you, and, you know, that you’re on thin ice already, yeah, you know, you might as well just call them up and say, This is what’s about to happen. But, you know, so, so, do do think about those. And again, that’s a place where an HR advisor has seen a lot of these scenarios, and they can walk you through how best to do it effectively. So, so follow those four things, just be thoughtful about it, you know, be compassionate to the individual that you’re letting go, and, you know, then move on, because that’s, that’s really what what you need to do in all of these cases. You’ve got other employees, you’ve got clients, you’ve, you’ve got to figure out how to take that situation forward.

GINI:
Yep. Not a fun thing. But you’re exactly right. In the end, it ends up being better for everyone.

CHIP:
Indeed. And what’s better for everyone is that we stay under our 30 minute self-imposed time limit so that we don’t get fired. We want to stay in your podcast feed. And we want you to be listening to us every week. So please don’t fire us. And I guess with that, that will bring to a close this episode and the end of our two part series on hiring and firing. And I’m Chip Griffin.

GINI:
I’m Gini Dietrich.

CHIP:
And it depends.