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The toughest conversation

By Kevin Sharer


Kevin SharerSenior Lecturer and former Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer shares his advice on letting someone go.

Have you ever had to fire someone? My hunch is that for many of you, the answer is no. But it is almost certain someday and perhaps sooner than you imagine you will need to deliver the bad news. This conversation may be the most dreaded and least well done task for most managers. While this dread and poor performance might be understandable, managers can and should do much better. You have probably done some work in your courses including ALDS and LEED around the subject of difficult conversations, giving feedback, and even role playing the “we are making a change” dynamics. The framework that many have used to do their best in this challenging and important task for which most have little experience is to adopt a five element mental model, and focus on each element carefully and caringly.

Those elements include: (1) your mindset about the conversation including how you arrived at this point and what outcome you seek, (2) the preparations you give to planning all elements of the conversation including rehearsal, (3) the time and place you choose to have the conversation, (4) the words and pacing you actually use, including preamble, logic, clarity, brevity, tone, and time allocated, and finally (5) the events that happen after the conversation. You can see from this list of interrelated steps that the person who just rushes it to get the conversation done has virtually no hope of a successful outcome. Moreover, the manager could do significant damage to his or her reputation as a leader and to the organization at large by doing a poor job.

Let’s step back and think about how best to tackle the five elements. As with most things, mindset matters. Do you approach the task with real empathy and respect for the person receiving the news? Do you intend to give the person the respect of clarity and honesty about the reasons, acknowledge the person’s contributions, give the person time to ask questions, help the person get on with their life, etc.? In short, you should put yourself in the person’s shoes and ask how you would like to be treated in receiving this possibly surprising, hurtful, embarrassing, and devastating news. Do you reflect on how you came to this place and what you can learn? Have you given the person clear signals in the past if the issue is performance rather than behavior based single point failure or organizational restructuring? In short, your mindset needs to be that this is an important task that takes your very best effort. How do you plan? Do you just jot a few things down, or worse, wing it? Or do you write if not a script at least a detailed outline of what you will say? Do you seek advice from your hr person? Do you have your bosses’ support and input? Do you think about who will replace this person, how the organization will react, etc.?

What time, place, and mood do you choose? Afternoons are in my experience always best, Fridays beat Mondays, and a quiet, very private place where you or the person both have an easy departure path work best. The phone is an unacceptable means with the only worse mechanism being an email or letter or even worse reading about it in the newspaper. This is about authenticity, respect, and dialogue which happen best face to face.

What words do you actually pick and what tone of voice do you employ? My experience is that it works best if after a very, very brief introduction that you get to the point with clarity so there can be no mistaking the message. Pause to be sure it sunk in. Go right into with brevity but clarity what will happen next in organizational and personal terms. Give the person time to let it soak in, ask questions, be emotional if that happens with the objective being delivering the message with empathy, clarity, and respect. The final framework element consists of the events after the conversation. Who can the person turn to for help and more details? What are office arrangements, financial details, help or support in finding new work? How and when or whether you will explain the reasons for the person’s departure to the wider group must also be planned.  The point is to give careful thought to the entire process and not just the event of delivering the message. Success is achieved when the person feels that they were treated fairly and with respect, the person knows you care about them and want them to succeed in the future, and the organization sees the person’s departure as the result of a fair and considered process in accordance with the firm’s values and standards. These objectives are not easy to achieve, but with some planning, clear thinking, and care you can do this very difficult thing with respect for the person and consistent with the values of the organization. Get ready, you’ll be called upon sooner than you think.


November 24, 2014
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