How Not to Fire People
Though I officially retired in October, I continue to do seminars and corporate trainings. Because of this I still keep my eye out for real world examples of businesses and employers practically begging to be sued to use as cautionary tales. And so it was with great interest that I read this Baltimore Sun article, forwarded to me this afternoon by a former client. I guarantee you it will go into future seminars and trainings.
It seems that Towson University (go Tigers!) has decided it can no longer afford to continue its baseball and men’s soccer programs. Times are tough all over, and eliminating both programs will save the University $900,000 annually. It is the kind of sad but presumably necessary decision that organizations are forced to make sometimes, and I have assume no one wanted to pull the trigger. So at this point in the story, I have no reason to criticize the Towson administration; indeed, they might well have earned my sympathy.
But then we get to the part of the story where they actually terminated the programs.
Once the decision had been made, the first order of business was to gather the appropriate staff, coaches and student athletes to let them know that their programs were being terminated and to explain to them why it was necessary. Presumably trying to limit the number of people she had to look in the eye, Towson President Maravene Loeschke announced this meeting in the middle of class sessions less than an hour before the meeting’s start. Many of the students were still in class and didn’t get the message that there was a meeting at all until long after the five minutes in-between when Loeschke started the meeting and when she left. But it actually gets worse.
Lord knows what she was thinking, but Loeschke decided to go into the meeting escorted by several armed police officers. In addition, she had more than ten additional police officers waiting outside the meeting room by their squad cars. The idea was apparently to intimidate staff, coaches and students from trying to… um… fish, I have no idea what the police were there to prevent.
Each of the head coaches that were terminated had given thirty-five years of service to Towson; this did not prevent the administration from spelling one of the coaches’ names incorrectly on all of the termination paperwork.
“They were incredibly respectful,” Loeschke said of the players and staff who attended the meeting. “I could not have asked for more respect from them as I was telling them this news.”
It’s a shame the players and staff couldn’t say the same about Loeschke and Towson.
Time will tell whether or not the terminations will result in actual lawsuit, but for now Towson has just taken a “no real chance of lawsuit” event and needlessly transformed it into a “slight-to-fair chance of a lawsuit” event.
Worse, they’ve created a pretty bad public relations problem that could have a significant opportunity cost. Towson might have used the financial need to eliminate two sports programs as a way to call for money from alumni. Instead, it appears they may have alienated at least one of their largest donors. John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, is an alumnus of both the University and the baseball program. He is also one of the athletic department’s biggest sugar daddies, having made donations as large as $250,000 in the past. After the way Towson handled this mess, however, Schuerholz has declined to say whether or not he will continue to give financial support, saying only that University missed an opportunity to teach the students “how to do the right thing.”
I want to be very clear here: Towson’s decision to cut two sports programs for budget reasons was not an inherently bad choice. How they went about executing it was.
I don’t know how many League readers have positions where they are required to terminate employees, programs or departments. But for anyone that thinks they may need to perform a termination in the future, allow me to give you a few rules of thumb that can save you headaches down the road.
- Don’t game the timing of the termination. Towson should had announced a meeting time that allowed everyone involved to have a reasonable chance to know about it, and have a reasonable amount of time to make arrangements to attend. It could have been later in that same day, or in the early evening, or first thing the next morning. Instead, they looked to “game” the scheduling in order to make the meeting less awkward for them. Usually when I see organizations make this mistake, they decide to hold off on terminating people until last thing on a Friday afternoon, so they can go right home and not have to look other employees in the eye afterward. This makes the managers feel a little better, but it means that the terminated employees have to go sit through a crappy weekend without the option to begin picking up the phone and trying to make new plans. If you’re terminating for cause, do it immediately. If you’re scheduling future a lay off, try for a Monday morning.
- Allow enough time for your employees to ask questions. By all accounts, Towson’s president ran a meeting that was over within a few minutes of when it started. I guarantee you that everyone who was able to attend had questions; I also guarantee you that in that span of time they were not allowed to do so. Two coaches had dedicated a combined seventy years of their careers to Towson; at least two dozen students had presumably chosen Towson over other universities based on these now defunct programs. Towson really does owe them the courtesy of taking thirty minutes to answer some questions after pulling the rug out from under them.
- Be respectful of those you are terminating. Too often managers seem to feel the need to justify why they are staying while the people they are terminating are being shown the door. Don’t do this. Let them know the reason why they are being terminated, but let them know as well that you’re appreciative of their efforts to produce a better outcome. Wish them well. If you know of an organization or position where they might be a better fit, recommend it to them. You should not attempt to be their “buddy,” but you do not need to be their antagonist. In short, be respectful. And for God’s sake – and I hope I really do not have to say this – don’t do it under cover of armed guards.
In his post over at Not A Potted Plant, Burt talks about clients who cling to “a fiery anger that burns with the heat of a thousand furious suns towards the other party.” In my experience, this fury is what actually instigates most ex-employee lawsuits. In fact, most people that file lawsuits against former employers make that decision based in part or entirely on the way they in which were terminated. If you have a professional position where you are sometimes forced to let people go, you should remember this every time you have to bring down the axe. If you use that space to get in a few digs at the outgoing party, it means you are putting your organization at risk.
Worse than that, it means that you are probably not a very good manager – so work to be a better one.