Firing by an Engineer

Firing by an Engineer

As a general rule, I never thought my job responsibilities as an engineer would include HR duties. Admin duties, yes – engineers are not exempt from Excel data entry, scheduling, and organizing forms with pink sticky notes. (I do love my pink sticky notes.) And management duties, yes – many engineers work in teams and need to know how to motivate, collaborate, delegate, and generally navigate in leadership settings. But the thought of hiring folks, paying salaries, crafting policy – that just scares me. What the HR department does deals directly with issues that get to the heart of human emotion – money, titles, benefits, and scope of power. Eesh. No wonder it scares me…

Fluxor has recently moved to a job that requires hiring folks, and Cherish and FrauTech have both written about being on the interviewing side of the hiring process. So far I’ve never had to hire someone.

But you know what I did just recently?

I had to fire someone.

Talk about eesh.

Firing someone who is doing a terrible job is not hard – you know you are doing the correct thing, and your employee is clearly not fulfilling his duties. But this was a case where the person was borderline – seemed teachable, generally positive and enthusiastic when you spoke to them, was given a warning and a chance to improve, but just never seemed to latch on and really clear the expected bar. Never did anything drastically TERRIBLE, but also never quite did the RIGHT thing either. Day late and a dollar short, as my grandfather says.

So I asked to meet with the person, sat them down, and started going over their performance thus far. I was trying to be fair and both express appreciation for the work they HAD done, and yet explain that they hadn’t done ENOUGH work. It turned out to be very hard to do. There was a point where the panic set in, you could see it in the eyes. The person started trying to point out every little tiny thing that they had ever done, desprately trying to justify the contribution they had made.

And I got to the point I just had to say those words – I’m sorry, going forward you will no longer be a part of this organization.

And they ARGUED with me. They PLEADED. They looked like they were going to cry, and then like they might hit something. I should have just left, I should have said “You’re fired” and cut it off there. But I didn’t know better, and I let it drag out – trying to explain WHY they were fired. Eventually, of course, it did end.

I felt like scum of the earth. Even though I knew logically that I did the right thing, it wasn’t personal, and it’s just business – I still felt like a dream-crusher.

Now, the crazy thing is what happened next. This person was so upset, that they sent emails to me and my partner saying this is unfair, they should be compensated, and they felt it was a personal decision. The person then emailed MY bosses expressing their displeasure, saying they felt disrespected, unappreciated, and calling me unethical and unprofessional and a liar. And finally, they sent an email saying that I had 24 hours to compensate them for the work they had already done, or they would start blackmailing the project.


And as a final stroke, this person showed up to a group-wide meeting the next week, demanding compensation and reiterating that they felt insulted and unappreciated and disrespected and unfairly treated. I actually wasn’t even there that week – so they were talking to a group of people who could do nothing anyway.

The whole experience was a bit surreal – I never thought I would have to fire someone, let alone decide what to do with blackmail threats afterwards. I suspect that I didn’t handle my end very well – clearly whatever I said came off as a put-down or a personal attack. Personal dynamics are really not my specialty, after all, as an engineer logical to a fault. Does not excuse the behavior afterwards, but clearly my firing skills need some work. How do those HR folks do it?? 🙂

I suppose for me, the lessons learned were:

To Fire Someone:

– Be clear about expectations from the beginning, so that when you fire someone you can point to concrete reasons

– Be professional, use only facts in your statements

– Keep a thick skin – it is not personal, it is business

– Thank the person for their time spent at the organization, then end the meeting promptly and graciously

If Being Fired:

– Be clear about what your contributions were, so you can demonstrate how you were meeting expectations

– Be professional, use only facts in your statements

– Keep a thick skin – it is not personal, it is business

– Thank your boss for their time and the opportunity to work for them, and leave promptly and graciously

Hmm… seems like surprisingly similar approaches no matter what side of the table you are on! And of course, never blackmail your employer – that can’t end well….

Have you ever been fired, or had to fire someone? Was everyone involved able to stay professional and gracious?


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That’s why most companies walk their employees out of the office the moment right after the firing. No chance for them to blackmail anything.

Looks as though you had a wild initiation to the ordeal that firing can be.

In one instance in my company, the person in question had to be walked out the door by several other employees because he would not recognize that he’d been fired. It almost came to down to having to rip him away from his desk or call the police.

One other company I worked for had a procedure that worked reasonably well: In conjunction with HR, the person was called in and examples of their poor performance were brought out.
They were given 6 months to fix the areas of concern. It was explained to them that termination could result.

The manager had to meet with them at least once a month to go over progress. Frankly, this is as much fun as a tooth extraction.

If firing was still indicated, the manager (me) and a rep from HR would attend. The manager would deliver the bad news and then leave.

I strongly emphasize this: When you fire someone, you’re not there to justify the decision. You are telling them that they are leaving. There is no room for discussion or a change of heart. Their contributions and shortcomings have been weighed and the result meant their termination.

The HR person was there to explain what the severance package would look like. The room in which this took place was close to the building entrance so the ex-employee couldn’t walk through the building, making a scene.

The 6 month thing was a legal fig leaf that allowed the company to say, “See, we gave them every opportunity to improve and told them the consequences. We followed through.” There were issues sometimes, but that was for the legal people and HR to deal with.

The problem is that incompetent people don’t know they’re bad at their jobs. You could make the case that a measure of the fired person’s professionalism is their reaction at the time of termination and later.

Ms. Outlier, you were not well supported by whatever HR reps exist at your place. You, a novice, were thrown into the deep end of the pool attached to an anchor. It’s not surprising that you had a tough time.

As a student I don’t have much experience with the topic but Mr. Sutherland makes a good point. If the employee has been warned in the past and it comes time to fire them, there’s really no reason to go into detail about all their shortcomings. It gives them a false sense that they can somehow win you over by explaining things. The decision is already made, anything else is just salt in the wound.

nice to see you back in action miss outlier. hopefully you’ll have time for plenty of good stories, sucks about this one.

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