A Leadership Horror Story

Every Saturday usually begins the same way for me. I get up, head to Starbucks and have a cup of coffee while reviewing the past week’s results and the next week’s goals. Debriefing the week and reflecting upon what changes I need to make is highly productive time for me. However, my regular routine this last Saturday was disrupted by a horrifying scenario playing out before me.

Leadership and TerminationTHE SCENARIO: “Good morning, you’re fired!”

I noticed a woman across from me that seemed to be waiting for someone, but otherwise enjoying her morning. Ten minutes later, the man wearing a tie arrives and motions for her to join him at a table rather than the more comfortable chairs in which she was already sitting. In an instant, I saw from his demeanor that something wasn’t right. I sensed a mismatch between her expectations and his actions.

With no coffee order of his own (Clue #1), he sat down across the table from this woman and spoke in a low voice (Clue #2), all the while averting eye contact with her (Clue #3). His questions were seemingly aimed at the table, since that was where he was looking. She gave explanations for each of the things he asked about. Explanations wouldn’t matter. His position was resolute. The outcome was predetermined. Her employment had just ended right in front of me at 7:43 am.

She did her best to hold it together in such a public setting, although a few defiant tears refused to be held captive. That first tear must have been the leader, because it led a number of others right down the side of her cheeks. She was completely caught off guard. Apart from her coffee, she had nothing to dab her eyes with. He continued to speak to the table to tell her no need to come back to work on Monday.

She was devastated. I was nauseated from the recklessness and thoughtlessness of this leader’s actions.

He grabbed his backpack and left without speaking another word. His job was done. It was at this point that I was able to articulate in my own mind my observations of his demeanor when he walked in. I concluded that what bothered him was not how the news would affect this woman. He appeared to be bothered more by how it affected his weekend.

As leaders, what can we learn from this example?

DEBRIEF: Lessons for Leaders Delivering Difficult Messages

  • Be Predictable. Staff members should never be surprised when it comes to their performance. Provide consistent feedback. Care enough to share.
  • Be Discrete. The old adage to ‘Praise in public and correct in private’ is good advice. With corrective actions or terminations, choose the location wisely as the discussion should never be on display for outsiders to observe.
  • Be Present. Regardless of circumstances, when having a conversation, be completely present and engaged in the conversation. Staff should expect that from leaders.
  • Be Professional. No matter how difficult the message is for you to deliver, it is worse for the person receiving the news. Don’t portray yourself as the victim.
  • Be Honoring. Treat people with dignity and look them squarely in the eyes when communicating. Averting eye contact is dishonoring and suggests there is something in which to be ashamed (e.g., Surprising a person with a termination for performance).
  • Be Thoughtful. When delivering any message that may evoke emotion, be thoughtful by being prepared. Have tissues on hand. You may also consider having your discussion in a different meeting room to avoid parading your upset staff member in front of their peers after the discussion.
  • Be Careful. Most of us are not immune to having our own leader, CEO, board members, etc. approach us with a difficult message. Therefore, remember the Golden Rule. Treat others as you want to be treated.

Terminations and disciplinary actions happen for legitimate reasons. They can…and should always be…constructive in nature, never destructive. Practicing these characteristics in our daily demonstrations of Leadership can help to ensure we are constructive in our approach. Let’s all make sure we avoid creating this destructive horror for others.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.


10 thoughts on “A Leadership Horror Story

  1. Great, great, great advice, Jeff.

    In my position, I’m tasked with the possibility of this very situation. It’s a difficult thing to navigate, for sure, and your points definitely help keep the right perspective.

  2. Kelly J Messenheimer says:

    I found your blog quite interesting. I have been a Human Resource Manager for over 17 years and I find that the most disheartening task that my position entails is one of discharging an employee. I am in awe by the fact that this man cared so little about the fact that he was about to change someone’s entire life while staring at a table (lack of surety and obvious confidence at what he was doing) and that he dared do this in a setting which others could view (is his confidence level at so low that he required an audience to perform his position) what he felt compelled to do?

    I find that in terms of ending employment that one must be very conscientious to the fact that the cards must always stack up. The endless trail of paperwork always unappealing at first sight becomes a reward when faced with the inevitable. While you pin point very fine and crucial areas such as delivering critical messages, an individual responsible for others should simply know how to handle a situation such as this. The woman’s performance should have been made available to her at this point regardless if she were to ask to see why she was being terminated or not. The evidence should have been clear and the message should not have been a surprise attack as you described. Something with this termination just does not click with me. It appears as if the management side of this organization is not only unprofessional but may very well lack in providing the leadership skills required to fairly and legally manage employees.

    Finally, I personally would report this individual to someone above him. To be clear, without employee’s we cannot complete the tasks required to make any business grow. If this man’s weekend was so important to him, maybe upper management should consider giving him more free time to deliberate on a more qualified and maintainable career choice. Clearly this position is not his best fit. I too believe we should treat others as we wish to be treated. If we treat people as units and not people, with responsibilities, objectives and goals, we take the chance of becoming a unit ourself. I personally would not want to work for or be associated with a company which treats their employees so iniquitous.

  3. Thanks so much for the thoughtfulness of your comments, Kelly. I share your disbelief at the manner with which this was handled and have replayed the scenario in my mind a number of times of what I would do differently if witnessing this type of careless leadership.

    Unfortunately, I did not know either of the two individuals or for what company they work. That said, I have been keeping my eyes open for this woman to see what I can do on her behalf, including having a direct conversation with her [former] supervisor’s leader.

    Thank you for the care and value you obviously place on people, Kelly. I appreciate you, the field you are in and the manner with which you appear to conduct yourself. Sounds like your organization is VERY lucky to have you! Again, thank you for your comments and suggestions.

    • Kelly J Messenheimer says:

      Thank you Jeff for your kind words.

      I feel lucky to work with and for the most kind and considerate people. We value our employees and treat them as we would like to be treated.

      It’s unfortunate that you did not know the individuals involved in this situation. I suppose God knows and that man will one day answer for his shallow acts. Our God knows all and sees all and whether we answer for our unkindly acts here on earth – we will someday answer for them to him. It’s important we always remember that.

  4. Linda says:

    This exact scenerio happened to a friend of mine at a Starbucks as well! I’d like to think this sort insensitivity was an isolated incident – but, unfortunately it is not. Thank you for writing about it with such understanding of the impact this has. The kind of manager who chooses this setting is probably thinking only of their own comfort level – choosing a public place and counting on the dismissed employee to hold their composure so they can do the deed and escape quickly. Just sad. A very insightful article Jeff.

    • I am sorry to hear that Linda. Let me know if your friend happened to have this happen while visiting the Loveland, CO Starbucks in Centerra as I would love to follow up with her. I would like to think that what I witnessed was an isolated incident as well, but unfortunately we both know better. Thanks for the feedback Linda.

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