Behind Closed Doors: The art of respectful firing

How can a company deal with missed expectations?

About this series: Behind Closed Doors explores the often demanding and yet vital tasks performed by HR departments. The series will focus on case studies that show how HR pros can deliver professional, positive results when called on to have sensitive conversations with employees.

"You're fired."

Those words carry a paralyzing stigma within our professional psyche. No one wants to be on the receiving end, and those whose job it is to utter those words, do so (in most cases) reluctantly.

In rare cases, employees' actions or misdeeds defy legal boundaries, disturb company reputation and/or pose a direct threat to coworkers. Such transgressions usually result in an automatic pink slip.

All too often though, under-performing and missed expectations are a more prominent, trickier culprit. The reasons vary: Miscommunication between managers and workers can develop, employees may overstate their proficiency with certain tools or skills on their resume during the interview process — and sometimes, efforts to correct problematic behaviors, like tardiness, simply do not connect.

To give readers a perspective on how to handle the latter of these two categories proactively, HR Dive spoke to Bryan Miles, veteran CEO of Miles AG and practitioner of the art of "respectful firing."

Key 1: Have the right employee culture

"Rarely in our business is something so egregious that an employee needs to be immediately fired," Miles said. "It's typically missed expectations."

Miles stresses that employers should seek to create an environment in which workers are treated like adults, and his approach to the employer-employee relationship prioritizes trust above all else. When, or if, issues or conflict begin to arise, trust is an important cultural concern to keep in mind.

"People come with a set of experiences and emotions that you have to look at on an ad hoc basis," Miles says. "Maybe there's something going in their life, maybe it's moreso about them as a whole person and making sure everything is going well for them. Is it really about work?"

Key 2: Follow the rules of engagement

So what happens when an employee misses a crucial deadline or gives a shoddy presentation? Or, using an example cited by Miles, what if the employee is caught spreading gossip?

Miles AG relies on a strategy known to managers as the "rules of engagement," a concept that is coached internally. The first step, before any sort of disciplinary action, is to hold a conversation with the employee to confirm that a gap in expectations exists, and then discuss that gap.

"Sometimes it's me who's misunderstood something," Miles said. Managers should do everything possible to make sure they have not poorly communicated an instruction or set unrealistic expectations.

Among the most significant tasks taken on by HR departments large and small is employee evaluation, whether the process involves an annual performance review or daily check-in by a manager. Miles AG doesn't do performance reviews; managers host one-on-one talks with employees throughout the year to address concerns.

"Our HR department is Switzerland. It's the safe harbor for our business. And it's worked."

Bryan Miles

CEO, Co-Founder Miles AG

And if an employee has a concern that they're not able to raise to a manager, Miles AG says it makes it clear to employees that they can speak to HR about such issues

"Our HR department is Switzerland," Miles said. "It's the safe harbor for our business. And it's worked."

Key 3: What to do when things really go south

In the event that poor behaviors continue, it's important for a manager to document all instances. Employers need to be prepared to address each issue accurately and thoroughly.

For Miles, putting off a termination goes too far when keeping an employee comes at the expense of the rest of the team.

"When a leader reprimands a team, and not the employee in question, that's a terrible thing to do," he said. At this point, it's more a matter of when than if an employee will be let go, and managers must be brave enough to have the tough conversations that follow.

"I have heard that Fridays are better, so you have the weekend to diffuse the situation," Miles said. "However, for me as a leader, I think when it is time, it is time regardless of the day."

And when that day does come, Miles believes the decision shouldn't be a surprise for anyone involved.

"In my opinion, if the leader who is responsible for the termination of that employee has fully communicated and documented all the issue(s) that have led up to the termination, the employee should not be caught off guard," he added.

But that doesn't mean the firing should be done without respect for the employee's dignity, either. Miles believes the best way to approach the situation is for the person owning the decision to deliver the news in person, following up with a formal letter afterwards.


"It's inexcusable for you not to treat a person like a person on their last day."

Bryan Miles

CEO, Co-Founder Miles AG

Miles says. "They're still people, and I don't believe in burning bridges. Remind the leader who let this person go that they should, hopefully, be approaching this from a rational standpoint, not an emotional one."

Key 4: Conduct a post-mortem

The situation doesn't end with the firing. HR departments would be wise to conduct what Miles calls the post-mortem, examining why they hired the person, and what can be done to prevent a similar outcome in the future.

"Did we hire this person because we thought they were different from who they really were? I'd argue that that's a leader's responsibility," Miles says. "If they didn't give them enough work, then whose responsibility is it?"

And throughout this entire process, leaders need to be open to employee perspectives about their management styles. When managers ask things of employees, it's important to ask in the correct way, and to respect the opinions and concerns of those they manage.

"A leader should be asking this question: What's it like to be on the other side of me? If a leader is brave enough to ask that, they can develop good working relationships with people," Miles said. "A leader has to be consistently looking at themselves."

What have you learned from having tough HR conversations? What topics would you want to hear about from other members of the industry? Let us know at [email protected] or [email protected].

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Filed Under: HR Management