Saving Face

There will be a time when every leader must make the difficult decision to let someone go.

While these decisions are never easy, there are right and wrong ways to go about the process.

The right way is to do everything possible to preserve the reputation of the individual being dismissed.

In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown proposes organizations must, “Always give people a way out with dignity. This means that you need to remember the human and pay attention to feelings ... This person has a family, a career, and a life that will be affected. When you're delivering the news, be kind, be clear, be respectful. Be generous.”

In the heat of a spirited conversation, remembering Brown’s advice can be difficult. Emotions are high, and egos get involved. There is a good chance the person being fired has either made a colossal error in judgement, or has undermined the organization for a long period of time. Giving this individual grace when they have created such harm can seem counterintuitive.

Keep in mind the act of termination was likely a team effort. While an employee must take ultimate ownership of his or her behaviors, organizations must also accept part of the blame.

Why was this person hired in the first place? How did this individual - who is now being terminated - make it through the interview process? Was this person given every opportunity to succeed? Was this employee given the necessary tools and resources to flourish?

High turnover in school districts can often be traced back to poor hiring practices or lack of employee support. Employers who keep these ideas in mind when letting an employee go will approach the conversation with greater empathy.

Another way to preserve the reputation of the employee being released is to give them every opportunity to tell their story. Later in her book, Brown suggests, “Ask the person how they want to let colleagues know about their departure and follow their lead on that if possible.”

The primary goal for dismissing someone is to replace that person with a more capable employee. Therefore, be ok with allowing the employee to tell their story (lose the battle) as long as in the end the employee is gone (win the war).

Sometimes the employee crafts a reasonable story for leaving. Other times, the individual chooses to communicate full details of the termination. Either way, usually it's reasonable to give employees the option of sharing their story with family, friends, and co-workers.

Finally, keep in mind the words of Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People) who suggests, “Letting someone save face is vitally important - let's remember this the next time we are faced with the distasteful necessity of discharging or reprimanding an employee.”

Looking for a great book about managing employee dismissal? Consider reading The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.


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