What this advisor learnt from firing someone they deeply admired

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Sometimes in business tough calls need to be made that can have a significant impact not only on your work life, but also at a personal level.

There may be a variety of reasons as to why employees need to be let go from a business, however, navigating that experience can be even tougher if the person delivering the message has a personal connection with the person they are firing.

Hari T.N, a strategic advisor at The Fundamentum Partnership in India, has shared his experience of having to fire someone he deeply admired via a LinkedIn blog post.

Hari explains that a public company he had worked for, Virtusa, needed to make a number of tough calls following the global financial crisis that had rocked economies throughout the world.

“Events unfolded faster than we could imagine,” he explains.

“The Virtusa stock, like the rest of the markets around the globe, went into a free fall and employee stock options were soon under water. Clients began cutting discretionary spends; some even cancelled, and revenue projections went for a toss.”

As a result, the company decided to let go a number of employees, including its human resources head for Americas and Europe, Chris Carter, who Hari describes as “an unusually clear thinker and deeply passionate about nurturing talent”.

“His understanding of the interplay between business needs and talent strategies was amazing,” Hari says.

“I had a deep admiration and liking for Chris.”

However, with the financial crisis having changed everything, the company needed to take action.

“After some serious deliberation, we figured out that the only way to calm our investors was to take some hard calls on costs, especially people costs,” Hari says.

“After going through every line item we identified costs that were to be pruned and people who were to be let go of.

“Chris’s name was on the list along with several others. I knew we would have a lot of difficult questions to answer on this, but tough calls needed to be taken in the larger interest of the company.”

Carter was subsequently let go, with the company negotiating a separation package “beyond what was in the contract”. While the news was initialled taken “with dignity and poise”, and Carter agreed to tell his own team that he would be leaving, the relationship almost soured when the company’s legal team wanted to step in over a comment made by Carter. However, the company chose not to pursue a “legalistic” approach and Hari and Carter remain friends.

Hari writes that, following implementation of the staff cuts, while everyone involved was disappointed, the decision was not questioned by many. It did, however, teach him some lessons about communicating difficult decisions.

“It is not easy to take tough calls especially when it is not fair on the individual and there is no performance or attitude issue,” Hari says.

“However, in the larger interest of the company and on some rare occasions, these calls need to be taken and executed, however unfair they may seem.”

Managers should also expect the individuals involved to “vent”, says Hari, and this may involve them saying things that would otherwise “seem like spreading negativity”.

“Don’t take a legalistic or a hard position. At the same time, do not make statements that distance you from the decision and imply, ‘I really do not support this decision but it is a call the organisation has taken and I am just implementing it’. Take ownership for the decision because you are the organisation,” he says.

Hari says it’s important to offer genuine help to those leaving the company and for managers to communicate the news to the rest of the company, rather than the terminated employee being asked to do the communicating.

“On occasions like these … messages need to be crafted carefully but in spite of your best efforts they will be a little opaque. But don’t fret too much. People know the truth irrespective of what you say,” Hari says.

Finally, Hari says it’s possible to maintain a personal relationship with the person who has left, but advises not to be “intrusive in trying to preserve it”.

“Allow things to settle down and work slowly at restoring the relationship,” he says.

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