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Ethics
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The Best Leaders Don’t Fire Employees The Way Elon Musk Did

Bruce Weinstein
· Nov 26, 2022
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How did thousands of Twitter employees learn that they were being let go? Some were notified by email. Others found themselves unable to log into the company’s systems.

There are several ethical questions worth exploring. Was it right for CEO Elon Musk to fire employees this way? Was it right for those employees to be fired in the first place? Each is robust enough to deserve its own article. We’ll address the first one here.

The best leaders—those who lead according to the principles of ethical intelligence —use the following five rules when it comes time to let someone go.

1. Do it in person whenever possible

As uncomfortable as it is to end someone’s employment, the right thing to do is to have a private conversation with them in person. An in-person conversation upholds the principle of ethical intelligence Respect Others. Emails, phone calls, and (worst of all) texts do not.

Another principle of ethical intelligence, Care, calls upon you to treat others with kindness and compassion. A face-to-face meeting is the best way to apply that principle when you must let an employee go.

Of course, there are situations in which it is impractical to do this. The head of sales for a company I know had to lay off three people who lived in different parts of the country, and it simply wasn’t possible for her to meet with each employee. In this case, a conversation by phone or webcam is, by default, acceptable. It’s better than downsizing by email or text because doing so minimizes unavoidable harm, a function of the most fundamental ethical principle of all, Do No Harm.

2. Do it privately

To show respect for a person is to honor that person’s values and preferences. It’s reasonable to assume that most people prefer to have troubling news delivered privately. If you’re giving bad news, do so in your office, with the door closed if your organization permits this. I’ve heard of managers who made their move at the employee’s cubicle within earshot of everyone in the vicinity. Isn’t this simply a matter of common sense and decency?

A private conversation is also more likely to be consistent with your company’s values.

3. Give the person your full attention

Interrupting the conversation to check your phone or engage in other distractions tells the other person that the matter isn’t important to you. The impulse to turn your attention to less troubling matters is understandable, but along with the privileges of being a manager come responsibilities. One such responsibility is having integrity when you must let an employee go.

4. Be honest, but not brutally so

Must you always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? If you’re giving sworn testimony in a legal deposition or court of law, you must be completely truthful. Beyond these situations, the duty to tell the truth is constrained by the duty to minimize harm. In practical terms, this means being forthright with the employee but also choosing with care the words, tone of voice, and demeanor you use.

Compassion is an aspect of the Care principle. It means “suffering with” someone. Showing compassion both honors the dignity of other people and speaks to the better part of your nature.

Finally, consider again Do No Harm, the first principle of ethical intelligence. We can’t always make things better, but we shouldn’t make things worse. For example, if you have to let a sales team member go because his performance was in the bottom 10%, you should mention this, but there’s no reason to add that he has an annoying laugh, even if he does.

5. Don’t rush

A shock takes time to absorb. Imagine that your physician says you have a serious illness. Wouldn’t you expect them to allow the news to sink in rather than to summarily dismiss you and call for the next patient?

Being let go isn’t as serious as getting a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease, but it is still a major, life-changing event. You owe your employee the space to absorb the information, and you may have to explain more than once what is happening and why. You would demand nothing less if it were happening to you, and you would be right to do so.

Call to action

If you must let an employee go, do so according to these guidelines:

  1. Do it in person whenever possible
  2. Do it privately
  3. Give the person your full attention
  4. Be honest, but not brutally so
  5. Don’t rush

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