Tuesday, June 02, 2009

You're Fired!

This morning on the way into work I was listening to the local country radio station and the DJs were discussing how someone at their station had been fired the day before. As these things are want to do, the conversation quickly turned to whether they the DJs had ever fired anyone and then ultimately they invited listeners to call in to share their stories of having to fire someone. There were the funny (one girl had to fire her sister) and the scary (someone got fired for cutting another co-worker's brake lines) and the just plain illegal (hiring your buddy for the sole purpose of staging a fight and firing him so he could collect unemployment).

This of course got me thinking about the two times I have personally had to fire someone. Neither time was particularly pleasant for me, but no one got hurt and generally speaking I think both people I had to fire handled the situation much better than I did. Turns out I might just not be upper management material because I take it to heart when I have to let someone go, deserved or no. I can't help but feel sad for them, for their families and so on. I also tend to be the eternal optimist insisting someone can change and do better even in light of damning evidence to the contrary. Its a personality flaw. I've accepted it.

The first time I had to fire someone I was fairly young, maybe like 22, and as the paralegal/office manager of a small law firm I pretty much did everything from ordering supplies to taking out the trash to making sure the whiskey stashed in the boss' desk drawer was always full. I was quite literally horrified when the boss called me into his office one afternoon after everyone had gone for the day to tell me that our receptionist had to be fired and it was my job to do it. I forget now what her offense was, she was also young and this was her first office job ever (after spending several years with a giant coffee company that shall remain nameless). I can tick off a list of her faults, dress code violations, too much time spent on the internet, too many personal phone calls, taking advantage of the office's lax lunch hour policy... But I'm not sure which of these doomed her. I also remember her being very cool and collected even in the face of a screaming client (or boss) and that she kept the front office immaculately clean.

The boss decided we should let her go on a Friday and my stomach was in knots all week counting down until Friday at five. I can't remember how I opened the conversation, I remember I didn't ask her to go to a conference room but that I just stood in front of her desk while I fired her. She didn't cry, she didn't even act particularly suprised, but she did make a few angry comments about how she felt she deserved better after putting up with our crazy boss (which I could not deny). I remember she calmly packed her things, took her keys off her keychain and left them on the desk, and walked out of the office. I remember watching as she walked to elevator and then as she put her box down and came back in to give me a hug. I never saw her again and she never listed us as a reference, though I would have given her a good review.

The second time I had to fire someone it didn't go quite as smoothly. In fact, I almost got fired myself because of it! I was not much older than the first time I had to fire someone, I think 25. I was working as a store manager/customer service trainer for a now-defunct laser skin care center. The company had lots of problems, the least of which were multiple lawsuits (sexual harrassment and medical negligence) and ended it ended up getting sold to a competitor right before a couple of the higher ups landed in jail for tax evasion and investor fraud. It wasn't the best job I've ever had but when I took it I had no idea what I was getting into and I was looking for something fun and different.

It didn't take me long to figure out that things weren't exaclty legitimate. For the most part I kept my head down and tried to run things as smoothly as possible in my own little store. The main problem was that corporate would go on these massive hiring sprees and then just assign new people to my store whom I had never met nor had the opportunity to interview. This was only mildly annoying at first, until they sent me two new sales people who quite clearly hated each other from day one. This resulted in maybe not the best work environment. One was a middle-aged female, mother of two, newly divorced, highly plastic and very, very high maintenance. She would show up to work in totally inappropriate clothing (highlighting her new... erhm... enhancements courtesy of her ex) and say insulting things to the other women who worked there, to say nothing of her hard-sell, scare tactics with the customers. The other was a younger male, maybe late 20's, scruffy looking, starving musician with what I would describe as a laid-back life attitude. They were like oil and water.

One day the female employee crossed the line. Someone called me to complain about something she had said to them in their consult and as they said the magic buzz-word "lawsuit" I had to get corporate involved. I thought for sure she would be fired then but no matter how many calls I put in to the corporate office I could get no resolution to the matter from them. Did I mention she was the top seller in not just my store but in the entire district? For all of you out there who say you hate pushy sales people I present evidence that those people are successful. Anyway, a few weeks passed and I finally got a call back from the district manager who instructed me not to fire the woman, but to fire the man. Apparently while she was in telling her side of the lawsuit story to corporate she took the opportunity to complain about her co-worker (and competition). I never learned what she said exactly about him but it was enough to have him black listed internally and my orders were clear - she was staying and he was to be fired. Immediately.

I was devistated. Granted, she was the higher producing sales person but she was insufferable and extremely high maintenance. He was popular with the patients and always showed up on time for his shifts with little to no complaining. I couldn't see why we should reward one employee who was being threatened with a lawsuit and fire one who was responsible and hard-working. And I said so. Loudly. To whoever I could get on the phone. When I realized my district manager was adament about the firing I called the regional manager, then the customer service manager, then the CEO. The CEO told me that either I could fire this guy or they would let me go and hire someone who would. Point taken.

I decided to just do it as soon as he came in for his shift that afternoon, I couldn't see waiting and torturing myself with anticipation. I invited him to my office, everyone in the store watched us walk back there. I had never met with anyone alone in my office before, in fact normally I didn't even sit in my office. He was angry, for all the reasons I knew he would be. He wanted to call the district manager to get the full story direct from him but I declined to be a part of it. I figured he had his number and could call from home if he wanted. He turned in his security info and left rather quietly, head down, not speaking to anyone. I sat in my office for the remainder of the day crying. A few short weeks later I got wind of a brand new scandal coming down the ladder from corporate and quietly handed in my resignation. A few years after that I got a check in the mail from some law firm stating that as a former employee I was entitled to a settlement from the company's dissolution. I held on to it for months and then figured they owed me for emotional distress and cashed it.

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