When the Slip is Pink

Once the firing is on the table, never, ever turn back.

If there's one thing that all the business books agree on, it's how to fire someone. Before you pull the trigger, you spend months documenting the person's performance (or nonperformance) with specific letters, memos, and notes. Keep copies for yourself, in case you get hit with a lawsuit.

When the time comes to do the deed, you don't say anything nice to soften the blow — which is why it's hard. Once the firing is on the table, you never, ever turn back. If your courage starts to fade, you remind yourself that the person let the team down and deserves to be fired.

If you've done all of the groundwork, then the dismissal should come as expected (though perhaps dreaded) news. Chuck House, president of Spectron Microsystems, which creates systems software for digital-signal processing, knows this all too well. A turnaround artist for ailing high-tech companies, House was a member of the Hewlett-Packard team that developed the first handheld computer. During his years working in and around Silicon Valley, House has canned enough people to staff a small startup. He's even been fired himself a couple of times. And he's concluded that going by the book doesn't always work in the real world. Here's how he's handled three difficult, but familiar, firing scenarios.

The Challenge: After taking charge of a troubled team, you lock horns with a disgruntled prima donna.

"When I joined Spectron in 1995, I had a high-profile player with a lot of talent. But he was a rabble rouser. Things came to a head when he came up with a proposal for a new suite of products that would get us into the real-time audio business. He made a presentation that was histrionic and atrocious — a grandstand play that lacked professionalism. It was clear that if he stayed he'd be a divisive force within the company. The only question in my mind was whether I should fire him on the spot, in front of everybody, or do it privately."

The Resolution: "I don't like to fire people when I am angry — you must be clearheaded in these situations. So I took a day to cool down. Then I called him into my office. But instead of immediately firing him, I asked him to identify his real goals. Gradually he concluded on his own that this would be a good time for him to depart. I helped him with his latent desire — and that helped me keep morale high.

The Challenge: A low performer is dragging down the team.

"I had a sales manager who had to be present in order to close a sale, which really slowed us down. Although I had every right to fire him, I decided to give him a second chance. We sat down and agreed on certain goals that he'd meet each quarter. We both seemed to be playing the same game on the same field."

The Resolution: "A no-holds-barred conversation usually works for two-thirds of low performers because they clearly understand your goals and focus on attaining them. Unfortunately, this sales manager fell into the other third. He didn't make the goals. I didn't have enough time for any more hand-holding. Because we'd already had a frank discussion about his performance, it was clear to both of us that he wasn't exactly flying high. So I gave him a chance to deplane. He knew it was coming, and he jumped."

The Challenge: You must fire a friend.

"I had a friend who signed on as my R&D developer at Hewlett-Packard, and I ultimately concluded that he wasn't up to the job. But I kept ducking the situation. He was a great guy, and I couldn't summon enough courage to tell him there was a problem. Finally, though, I had no choice. I called him in. I reviewed the issues. I told him it was too late to correct them. I'd have to let him go.

"But he fought back. He argued that I should have told him there was a problem a long time ago. He said that if I had told him, he would have come up with a solution."

The Resolution: "He caught me cold. So I gave him a chance to set things right — which is exactly what he did. The guy turned out to be superb, and today he is the group manager for seven divisions at HP.

"Supposedly once you decide to fire somebody you should never reverse your decision. It sounds good on paper, but real life doesn't always work that way. That's why I fire people one on one, without an HR person in the room. Doing it solo, I have room to maneuver in case I experience a change of heart. Other people go by the book. This is what works for me."

Coordinates: Chuck House, chouse@spectron.com .

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