Don’t Let People Go Like George Clooney. There’s A Better Way.

I remember watching Up In The Air, the story of Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a man who works for a human resources consulting firm specializing in termination assistance. The cold and clinical way Clooney’s character announced to individuals that they no longer had a job quietly horrified me.

I understand why companies hire people like this to do their dirty work and why Clooney’s character had a method. It’s all about risk mitigation–no saying the wrong thing, no tears, no emotions, no humanity.

I recall in painful detail the first time I was asked to lay people off. This was back in the early 2000s, and my team had to be reduced from thirty bright and brilliant people to one. I followed the instructions and the script much like George Clooney. It was awful for the 29 people I let go, it was awful for the one who remained, and it was awful for me.

What I didn’t know then was that I could’ve been better, much better.

I was quickly returned to that memory last week when one of my clients called and said:

“We’re going to have to lay people off.”

My heart broke for my friend, for he’s the kind of leader whose care for his team comes through in both his words and his actions. I asked if he wanted to talk–not to commiserate, I said, but to work through how he could be better than George Clooney.

We spoke about how he could prepare: prepare for the people he was going to let go, prepare for the people he would keep, and finally, prepare himself. It was a great conversation.

I’ve had this talk, or one like it, multiple times in recent days. Why? Because there isn’t a manager, I know who has ever received a playbook on how to fire someone. At best, you are joined by a hero from human resources to help you with policy and process, handed a simple packet of instructions from your equally shaken legal team, and off you go. Unfortunately, the only way you get to experience reducing staff is to have the ghastly experience of reducing staff.

THE NEW NORMAL

This is the new normal: it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, how long you’ve worked for the company, how senior you are in the organization, the concept of a “secure job” is a thing of the past. And if that’s the case, then any company with a conscience needs to start thinking about not just the tactics but also the humanity of letting someone go.

Here’s a prediction: if you’re planning to hire in the future, expect to have a candidate ask what your process is if unforeseen staff reductions occur. I challenge you to think about how you’d want to answer that question if you were in the candidate’s seat.

Which is why I write this.

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN DO BETTER WITH THE PEOPLE YOU’RE LETTING GO.

If you’ve read this far, I’m going to make an assumption about you. You are not a heartless jerk. You’re desperately sad that you have to give this terrible message to people on your team. They didn’t do anything wrong. You’re not mad at them. The company just can’t afford them anymore. It’s that simple. And because you’re not a heartless jerk, you’ll be tempted to say, “It’s going to be OK” or “You’re so brilliant, you’ll get another job, and you’ll be even better at it.”

But guess what? That’s not really what people want or need to hear. You’ve just pulled the rug out from under them; you’ve removed their ability to pay their bills; you’ve gutted the immediate future they thought was in the bag. As optimistic as I am, now is not the time to point out the silver lining.

What you can do, however, is give your now-former employee the gift of their future potential.

Think about it. The one practical thing you can share with this person is the language that describes why you hired them in the first place. What for? So they can use that language in their upcoming job interviews to explain to future managers their fantastic potential.

You hired them because you saw that they’d be able to solve a problem for you in the future (potential) justified by what they’d accomplished in the past (experience). Their future potential is, along with their expertise and skills, why someone is going to hire them in their next role. What this person has done is important, but it’s our understanding of what someone can do that matters. Help the next hiring manager hear why this individual would be useful to them.

Experience + Potential = Value

Now don’t be surprised if the person you are firing isn’t quite ready to hear this amazing information. Shock, anger, sadness, panic may dominate the moment. You can give the gift of this future value language at any time. So offer to connect with your former teammate when they’re ready to hear it.

Are you not convinced yet?

Think about the last time someone held a mirror up to your potential. You’re still grateful to them, aren’t you? I know I am. Now think about how good it felt when you held up a mirror (I hope in better times) to someone with potential, and they acted on it. You’re still totally proud of them, aren’t you? I know I am.

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN BE BETTER WITH THE PEOPLE YOU’RE KEEPING.

I’ve been in both the “let go” and the “keep” pile many times. If you’ve been a part of this modern economy long enough, so have you. And what do we tend to hear from leadership? “Focus on your work.” “You’re critically important to the organization.” “We’re going to get through this.” These and other such bland remarks are common fair, but an empathetic leader will want to know what his employee is thinking. Which is this…

“Am I next?” –followed by the daily anxiety that surrounds that question.

“Why not me?” — because you just let their friend go and they don’t know why it wasn’t them (survivor’s guilt is real).

They’re looking for reasoning; they’re looking for transparency. Often you can’t tell them everything. Usually, your answer won’t stop the questions. You can, however, give them the gift of their future value.

If you’re keeping a team (great), your priorities, however, have shifted dramatically. With a shift in priorities comes a shift in the kind of people you need. This is where you start making the decision on who to keep. I’m guessing that when you realized that the landscape was shifting, you looked at the entire team and “hired,” in your mind, the people who will best fit into this new normal. This means that each person on the team needs to understand – as would any new hire – the expectations, and that their job description has evolved.

 This is the information these individuals really need to hear. They need to know what their purpose is and why their work is specifically needed for the team to succeed. The way they did on their first day. The way they did when you first hired them. Because that’s what you did, you just hired them again for a new normal. Tell them this.

Imagine saying to them, “So I want you to know that it’s because of your ability to [fill in their unique potential here] in the future months; that is why you’re part of the team now.” Sincerity and authenticity are obviously critical here, but this simple act of transparency helps people feel the safety and security they badly need. Now they understand their unique value. Their future value, combined with their experience, is why they’re needed.

Experience + Potential = Value = Future You

Your organization needs everyone to focus and recalibrate. They can’t do that if they’re freaking out. Give them one less thing to worry about.

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN BE BETTER WITH YOU.

You didn’t think I’d leave you out of the equation, did you?

I cried in the bathroom the first time I had to let someone go. I was only twenty then. I didn’t have an HR partner guiding me through the process. I had no idea what to do. I can still see the shock on her face. More recently, I had to let someone go last year. I felt as terrible about her as I did the person when I was twenty. It never gets easy.

We’ve already established that you’re not a heartless person. Letting people go is an emotional and wrenching experience. Still, while everyone else is allowed to have all the emotions they want, you–the leader of the organization–have to keep yours in check. Does that mean you’re not feeling all the feelings? Not at all.

This is why you need to remember that you, too, just got hired for a new role, a new position that might have different responsibilities, a new role that might require you to lead parts of the organization you’ve never driven before. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to need to learn a new skill and build expertise in a new area. As horrible as everything is right now, this is the time when you’re going to get to grow, learn, and push yourself to a whole new level.

You have an opportunity to expand your potential, to create a new future you.

How do you do that?

Do an audit of what you were doing and how that might need to change in the coming months. Do you need to shift your priorities? Get clear on how and what you can do to navigate the future, and it will be good for you and your team.

Aren’t you just a little bit more hopeful for the future? I know I am.

So I challenge you, don’t use George Clooney, as lovely as he was, as an example of how to lay people off. I think we can all do better than that. And really, how often do any of us have the opportunity to be better than George Clooney?

Just a thought,