Talking About Why People Are Leaving

Talking About Why People Are Leaving

This post is a post I can only write because it has been a long time since I've had to let someone go from a role (and when it should be along time when I need to do so again). It's not about anyone in particular.

People, all of us, are ravenous for information and secrets. We want to know what's going on around us. We want to know the truth. We want to know before everybody else knows.

At the same time, we want to hold our secrets dear. We want to trust that when we divulge a secret to someone else, they will keep it in trust, not disclose it.
We have two things at potent cross purposes. While there are many scenarios we could discuss, we will focus on employee terminations.

When someone leaves voluntarily, the first thing I want to do is say "thank you." Whether they were one of my favorite or one of my least favorite employees, everyone adds something to the company and me. I always learn from the people with whom I work. I want people to be successful and enjoy the right match. I know many people who were lackluster at one company and amazing at another. Success at a job is more than just your skills; it is also a product of the environment.

When you have to let someone go, however, it is so much more complicated. Everyone wants to know why someone was fired. Some folks will have an idea (correct or not) and share that widely. There is a sense that the remaining employees deserve to know.

Netflix is famous for its sharing of notes about why folks are leaving. They come across as quite brutal at times from what I've heard. From the outside, it seems like they must still hold something back in those memos.

In many cases, I have felt it inappropriate to share why people are leaving. If they have been fired, it is usually quite clear as they are gone by the end of the day. (With voluntary separations, of course, the standard two-week notice continues to win.)

I've had to let people go for performance reasons, as well as for inappropriate behavior. While the company may have come to its conclusion on an employee, they didn't receive a trial and full due process, and it is not right for us to share our judgment with the world. We cannot announce why.

I remind people who ask me for sensitive information about employees who are gone that they wouldn't want me to share their secrets. If you were fired for performance or behavioral problems, you probably wouldn't want someone to announce that to all of your former coworkers.

While there are companies where departures are common, I have been fortunate that this has not been the case in organizations I have led. The downside of this is that each involuntary departure tends to be more consequential. People are going to have questions. It also presents an opportunity for a small scale conspiracy regarding what really happened.

People will blame the leader for what is seen as unfair firings, leading to more challenges amongst the remaining team. I believe I have always let people go for a good cause, of course, when it has been my choice. I have thought these terminations justified, even if I couldn't explain them to everyone else.
(Some layoffs occur in challenging budgetary times or from corporate development activities that are somewhat exceptions to the good cause idea, however.)

You also have situations where a popular and well-liked employee will need to terminated. It may be they are friendly, but bad at their job. It may also be that they seem pleasant to work with, but are harassing someone. When this person is let go, the magnitude of the impact increases that much more because the team's perception versus the reality of the individual has a wider gap.

In the end, it is virtually impossible in our modern, litigious business world to loudly proclaim the reason for someone's termination. I want to find an ideal balance that allows me to share why someone has left while still respecting everyone's privacy. Nothing demonstrates better to your remaining employees that you are working to provide them with a great working environment than being able to show them that poor performance and unacceptable behavior are addressed.