Faces of HR

Poor Firing Practices Can Lead to Poor Outcomes, Including Violence

An HR person was firing a supervisor, who then said, “I have a knife in my pocket and a gun in my shoe. And if you weren’t who you are, I’d be using it right now.” That terrifying encounter comes with a very important lesson: You never know how someone will react when fired. If you do not make the effort to ensure people feel respected when you let them go, that reaction can and will be amplified. In today’s “Faces of HR” column, we talk to that HR person and what she knows about terminations.

Meet Carol Mackinlay, Chief People Officer at UserTesting.

In the 5-Minute Friday segment, you mentioned this was your fourth career. What were your first three careers?

I actually have a degree in math from Berkeley.

That’s a first.

There’s a nonlogical pathway to where I am today. I actually went to Berkeley with the intention of being a computer scientist in the days before PCs and learned very quickly I’m not a software developer. I was not a very elegant coder at all and was widely encouraged to do something else. So I effectively have an industrial engineering degree. It’s the application of math to process improvement and doing some of that. So that was my first career. I went to work for Blue Cross of California doing process improvement. It was not a good fit; it was not something I enjoyed doing at all. I remember being very young and thinking, “I can’t do this for 40 years. This is just not going to work for me,” particularly because it wasn’t very people-oriented.

Even with a technical background, I ended up in finance for several years. I’m a financial modeler. During the savings and loan crisis of years ago, you would get young me as your CFO to come in and help you out in the situation you put yourself into that made you go into receivership with the government. Through the evolution of that work, I actually ended up on a project doing executive pay consulting.

What’s great about that is I actually really liked tax, strategy, and accounting. All of those things put together are the skills you need for executive pay. I did that for about 10 years, including starting my own firm. I ended up in HR actually in my late 30s when I was doing a project for Plantronics, which was a public company at the time, and the VP of HR quit. I ended up in HR coming through from the top. So it was a very nonstandard career path to get to where I’ve gotten to.

Do you think if that VP role hadn’t opened up that you ever would have thought to move into HR or something like it? Or is that something you were kicking around?

No, it was not something I was kicking around. It actually came as quite a surprise. I am what every personality test has ever said: I’m right brain and left brain. I go back and forth. So recruitment is actually my superpower. Recruiting and employee relations are where I’ve made my mark in building cultures. I hire people now to do the things I grew up having done in the past because I go back and forth.

That’s a very interesting path. Businesses are nothing without people. And that is something we all could continuously use a reminder of. You can organize finances all day, but if you don’t have a good strategy when it comes to keeping your people happy or keeping them on task, it won’t matter much. You’ll have to rearrange the furniture all the time.

And if you don’t have the trust of your employees, too. I’ve always been credited with being transparent, and fortunately, my CEO is too, and it just brings the volume down. People trust us. They feel like they’ve been included in why a decision was made. It’s very human.

That transparency is so important. It’s not an automatic skill. Large organizations in particular are hedging so much risk. The backbone is usually a financial backbone. You’ve got a CEO who’s good at those kinds of things and almost certainly at least a couple of lawyers, if not an army of lawyers, who are specifically designed to stop you from taking risks. It’s so easy to close down and say, “Well, we don’t want to bring up this idea yet. It’s not fully developed. We don’t want to get derailed. We don’t want this to get out” and so on. And it’s funny how counterintuitive that is to really what we need as employees.

Yup. Two hours ago, I was having a conversation with someone else and saying, “My way of looking at things is we all want to get to the beach.” You want to go over the mountains; I’m going to take a boat, but I’ll meet you there at noon on Tuesday. I don’t care how you get there.” And that’s satisfying to you to be able to say, “I can choose my own path.” I just see, as companies get bigger and start to put people in boxes and standardize things, nothing interesting happens. I don’t want somebody who’s done the same job 20 times before; who says I’m not going to take any risks. Then you don’t get diversity of thought or different perspectives.

Transparency is fundamental to trust. You can’t do well without it. You’re going to look at your books, and you’re going to say, “Why do I have this turnover? Why do we have these ongoing costs?” And it’s not going to be there in the books. It’s not going to tell you. You have to go look at the people and see how they’re doing, see what they’re up to, and see what they’re complaining about. And then, of course, listen to them, and don’t punish them when they say something you don’t like.

And iterate. I mean, I give a lot of credit to executive teams that take in new information and iterate on it, and that information should come from the people who are doing the job. It can be disappointing when you wind up with somebody who says, “This is the way we do it. We’re not going to listen to any new information or variables.”

One of the dangerous things about doing things the way you’ve always done them is that to an extent, it will sort of work. Even poorly designed work does get work done, and you can turn around and say, “See! It works, so we don’t need to change anything.” Such a mind-set can result in slow attrition and diminishing returns because it doesn’t see that a new approach can take what has been working and make it excel.

I’ve worked for a couple of companies that had some fairly long-tenured employees. Plantronics was full of people with 20 and 30 years of service. We called them “the Library.” They knew what we had tried and failed. People would come in with new ideas and say, “I’m a new CEO. Here we go. We’re going to go off and do this.” Then the Library would step forward and say, “We’ve tried that twice before. Maybe you want to rethink.” Again, the value you get from lifting people up to be able to have a voice is great.

Absolutely. Part of what made me want to talk to you was your unique perspective on letting people go—the most difficult part of any HR person’s job. What’s your philosophy about letting people go?

There but for the grace…….., right? I would defy people to look back in their career and say, “They’ve always had a perfect fit.” They’ve always had the most wonderful place where they were perfect. Sometimes I feel like employees fire themselves before we exit them. That, to me, is the best of all worlds. If I’ve given you enough feedback for you to know this doesn’t fit, that it’s probably not going in the right direction, and you say, “Great. I got another great job, and I’ve moved on.” But if we do have to do the dirty deed and move you out, we do it in a respectful way. I mean, you were a good employee for the time you were with us, and unless something horribly malicious and terrible happened and the police came to get you, you were just somebody who didn’t fit. So you treat that person with respect.

I see so many people get caught up and stuck on the words.

Instead say, “There are no good words.” There’s no good way to tell you this is happening. I’m going to fumble around a little bit, but I’m going to be empathetic to you and your situation. And then we’re going to customize that into what works for you. How do you want us to say this to the team? How do you want to exit right now? Do you just want to grab your backpack and go? Do you want to go say goodbye to everyone and we’ll take you out to lunch? I mean, this is now your experience, so it’s up to you. And once you go, you’re out with your head held high.

I love the idea of taking someone out to lunch. It’s a great send-off. I mean, first of all, who doesn’t like a free meal? And second of all, you wouldn’t do that with someone you didn’t respect.

Right. So my biggest story was in 2008, I had to let quite a few people go. We had a mini-layoff, and we let one of the administrative assistants go. I handed her my American Express card and said, “Take everybody out for drinks.” They brought it back to me somewhere at 5:00. But everyone said, “I can’t believe you just gave somebody you fired a credit card.” And I thought, “She’ll bring it back. It’ll be fine.” And you know what? It only cost a couple thousand dollars to make people feel better, and it did – for us and for them. They actually started an alumni club as a result of just feeling like we did what we could and that they knew that it was a business decision, but we did what we could to treat them with respect.

It’s a big deal, especially the fact that they went and made an alumni club; that just doesn’t happen. Right? It can be such a fraught thing. I mean, it’s something I talk about all the time, but people’s identities are truly wrapped up in their jobs. This is who they are to a great degree, who they are professionally, and when you terminate people, which is obviously the worst word people use for it, but you’re destroying their identity.

Yup. Well, you’re voting them off the team. “Survivor” just happened, and you got voted off the island. Even if you knew it might be coming, it doesn’t matter. It still hurts.

It’s a judgment, really, and, to a greater extent, a financial judgment, right? It’s not just “Oh, we don’t like you.” It’s “We can’t have you here anymore. We’re not going to pay you anymore.” That and everybody handles it differently. I mean, you’re going to have the people who are like “Oh, thank God” and then others who are going to cry and drag their feet out the door, which I witnessed a few times. It’s rough.

I could still say, though, that more than 90% of the folks I have let go have gone on to bigger and better things. That’s the thing I want people to remember when they have to terminate; the lack of fit here does not make this person completely undesirable. Especially in a job market in technology that’s as hot as it is right now, they will pop up somewhere else—in all likelihood, in a better situation. And I’ve been surprisingly thanked and hugged for firing people before. It can take a few weeks or months, but people do land.

Let’s talk about that a little bit more. Do you get actively involved in helping employees find out their roles, or what’s your post-firing? What’s that look like?

That’s my philosophy. It’s not just the events of the day, taking your badge, and seeing you to the door. I do check in with people as much as I can to see how they’re doing, referring them to recruiters and pointing out jobs that look like a fit for them. As much as I have the capacity to, I do try and stay with them and make sure they get landed. I’m shocked at how many people, though, are landed quickly. So it’s not that difficult.

So you have the time to do that?

I make the time to do it as much as I can.

That’s always the argument, right? Well, business has to go on. We don’t have time to, and yet what a difference it makes. When you let people go, they’re going back into your candidate pool. And it’s not just that they might be future employees. They might work at your competitor. They know a lot of the other people in their field. They are going to talk to them about how they were treated and what kind of experience they had. That will influence potential candidates’ decisions to maybe come or not come to your organization. You can’t just prime these people up and kick them out the door. They’re going somewhere. And when you do it right, it’s really good for everybody, not just them. Right?

People do refer us candidates after they move on. Those we’ve terminated feel quite a bit better once they’ve landed someplace and it is a better situation. The fact that you still have a conversation and relationship with them makes them feel even better about it. They will still refer people back, and they can say, “I would do this because you’re a good place to work because you treat people decently.” So yes, the circle continues.

One of those situations you mentioned was mass layoffs. How many of those have you worked over, and has it been more challenging?

I’ve done three of magnitude. The first one was very early in my HR career. We moved the last manufacturing line to our Mexican facility from Santa Cruz. The thing I’ve been thinking about with group layoffs is there’s no right way to do them either. If you’re going to let a bunch of people go, you have to understand there is a camaraderie that they have by being together. You could call everyone in the room. There was actually a large travel company recently that let people go, and it was criticized for doing a mass move with everyone together. If it was independently done person-by-person, the information would get around quickly. If I call to let you go, you’re going to tell 12 people, they’re going to know it before we get on a call. Their emotions are already heated. And now we’ve got them in agony.

I have been let go once before; 50% of the company had been let go at that point. They waited for me to be last because I was a VP. So I got to stand there for 3 hours watching people go into a room one at a time, and I would never do that to people. It made things worse. The worst part about that situation, too, was there was an accounting clerk who was told neither that she was keeping her job nor that she was being let go. So she sat at her desk in tears for 4 hours until I went up and said, “You’re safe. I’m the last one. You’re safe. You can go.” I’ve been in situations in which they brought a security guard in who was carrying a weapon in case something happened. None of these would be things I would advocate for.

They call it the perp walk, right?

Yeah.

It’s ill-advised under almost every circumstance, except for when you’re firing someone because he or she was violent or threatened violence or there was some sort of sexual assault or something like that. I suppose there are a few other limited cases, if they’re highly connected into the technology of the company, when you really can’t afford for someone to drop some retaliatory virus on your server at the last minute. But even in those cases, it can be done respectfully, and you can engage with the person and say, “Look, for the security of the company, we have to bring this guy in, and we want everything to be amicable.” But overall, don’t do it, guys. Don’t do the perp walk. It’s a terrible idea. That’s how you get people to do something regrettable.

Exactly. It’s the disrespect that goes with the disrespect that comes back to you, I think. But rarely does something bad happen. The worst in all of the different terminations I’ve had—the worst that’s ever happened—was someone who was left on company e-mail sending back a flare mail. And it wasn’t awful, but it was a bit of a flare mail saying, “This is what just happened to me.” That’s the worst thing, and I’ve been concerned about big guys, where I’d be the only person in the room. Should I have a security person there? And then when I let them go, they’ve been the ones who cry.

 The only thing people have in common in a termination is going through the stages of grief, and you can see it on their face. Some people just go through it very quickly. They knew this was coming, their eyes tear up, and then they get silent, and you just see them go through, “Oh, what just happened? OK. All right, I’m done.” Then you see some people get stuck in being angry. And I always like to get people to the point where they’re tearing up because they’ve gone through the stages to where they’re reconciling that this has happened to them. If you offend them, they stay in that second stage, which is anger. And if you don’t give them someone to talk to who’s empathetic to them, their attorney will be happy to be empathetic to them.

Yeah they will. And the plaintiff’s attorneys will have some fresh ideas, too. I’ve experienced an awkward situation in which a former coworker was supposed to have been let go but found themselves in a meeting in which a higher-up recognized their voice and had to end the meeting to notify the person that they had, in fact, been let go. 

I have a similar story you can share. It was this first layoff I experienced, and I wasn’t the senior person in the room. The layoff went through, and I said, “Where’s the supervisor of the group?” And the person went white in the face and said, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t invite them to the meeting.” And I said, “Oh, I’ve got to learn how to do this. I’ll do it.” So I went to a very, very small office in the back to where this very large person was sitting and said, “We just let your group go, and we’re going to let you go, too.” And he said, literally, “I have a knife in my pocket and a gun in my shoe. And if you weren’t who you are, I’d be using it right now.” And I was like, “Well, lucky for me. He likes me and doesn’t feel like it’s my time to go.” After that, I thought, OK, we’re not going to do that one again. We’re going to make sure that we’ve counted heads before we take action.

I will definitely be including that because that’s a really important lesson.

The biggest thing for me was the fact that I had a relationship with him, and I said, “I’m sorry,” and that was what I learned; you say, “I’m sorry. I am sorry this happened to you. I’m really sorry. And I want to do what I can to help.” That makes all the difference. It’s amazing how many people can’t see that’s the right thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard.

It’s even enough to say, “The company told me to do this to you, but I’m sorry it’s happening to you.” It’s amazing.