Today, I thought I would share with you the story of when I had to separate employment with Joe. I will call him Joe for these purposes.
For the first almost 10 years of my leadership role, anytime I had to separate employment with someone it was for very egregious things. Things that were so far out of bounds that it was just an obvious act. The fact that they were going to lose their employment was no surprise to them.
About 10 years in, we had to restructure, and I inherited a senior director level employee named Joe. I got along with Joe but right off the bat, the feedback I would get from other employees is that the Joe that everyone else was seeing and interacting with was not the Joe that I was seeing. One thing led to another, some performance issues were happening, and I knew something had to be done.
I met with our Human Resources team. It was a great team then and a great team now. I always had a lot of support. I met with them and I said “Okay, this needs to go a corrective action route, and I want to make sure I’m doing it the right way.” So I met with them and they said have this conversation and say these things to Joe. After the conversation, send him an email that summarizes these things you went over, so it’s all there. It’s clean. It’s documented. I had the conversation with Joe. Said all the things I needed to say, followed up with the email.
Another week or two went on. More performance issues continued to surface, met with HR again, had another conversation, said the right things, got them documented and sent them off.
Then we got to the next round, and his issues continued. I worked with HR to put together a written document which was the final “This can not happen again” and any further behavior like this will turn into separation of employment. I reviewed the document with Joe, had him sign the document and sent it to his file. Everything is very clean and by the book.
Another few weeks go by and still no change. At this point, we’re in my office with a couple HR associates separating employment. In the conversation, when we got to the point where we were letting Joe know we were terminating employment, I saw Joe’s face and I reacted instantly. He didn’t see it coming, and it was a surprise. I’ll never forget how I felt when I saw that surprise in him. Then I proceeded to go with an empty box up to his office and gather his things and as I was taking photos of him and his family thinking, ‘Joe has to go home early today. And explain to his family why he is home early and I don’t know how that’s going to change the course of their plans in the short term or in the medium term and what that means for his family.’
I couldn’t get that look of surprise out of my mind and the way that it made me feel. I started to go back and think about what those conversations were like that I was having with Joe, and I came to the realization that what you say isn’t nearly as important as what people hear. While I had said all the right things I had failed to make sure Joe had heard me.
I had to think back. I present the language, did I counter it with where we’re going to get through it together. Was I too positive? I had those questions.
Ultimately, I felt like I had failed him as a leader because I had surprised him and failed to make sure he had heard me along the way. That’s a mistake that I’ve not made again because I’ve owned up to it, and I’ve shared it with a number of people. I visit classes of new aspiring leaders and that’s the story I share with them of looking back on a mistake that I’ve made that I never want to make again
From that moment forward, it became very important to me that I always know that people heard what I was saying. I would ask, “Reflect back to me, can you state in their own words what you heard me say?” and have developed much more open communication to the point now where I actually have some good friends in my life who are people who unfortunately, I had to separate employment with at one point in the past, but because I was so clear in the communication, and they felt so respected along the way we’ve actually been able to keep this friendship to this point.