HR Magazine - February 2000: Make Foresight 20/20

By Andrea C. Poe Feb 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, February 2000

Vol. 45, No. 2

Learn from terminations and you may prevent them in the future.

Firing an employee is never a pleasant task, but at times it must be done to rid the company of a poor performer. And, as difficult as it can be to terminate someone, at least it benefits the organization in the long term. Right?

It depends on what you do next, experts say.

Any time a termination occurs it signals a problem within the organization, maintains Patrick Higgins, senior HR consultant with National Inspection & Consultants in Fort Myers, Fla.

No matter the reason for a termination-tardiness, lack of skills, a drug problem, a poor fit with the corporate culture—a fired employee invariably means the company dropped the ball. You can't divorce a bad employee from bad management, experts say.

And while under-performing employees deserve some of the blame, it's rare that terminations are entirely their fault, notes Greg Smith, author of New Leader: How To Attract, Keep and Motivate Your Workforce (Lucie/CRC Press, 1997) and president of Chart Your Course International, a consulting firm in Conyers, Ga. "Poor employees usually get blamed for whatever went wrong. They get fired, the organization hires new people, those employees leave, and it starts all over again. And nothing is done about the underlying problem," he says.

The key to benefiting from a termination is to look back and find out where things went awry. "Once someone has been fired, you need to stop and look at the entire system to see what's broken," says Michael Holzschu, a principal with Holzschu, Jordan, Schiff & Associates, an HR consulting firm based in Farmington Hills, Mich. "Once you have identified the problem, you can begin to find ways to fix it."

Even if the problem with an employee stemmed from personal troubles, says Bob Largent, SPHR, a consultant with HR Management Associates in Perry, Ga., the company should have noticed and been there to intervene. If not, "that means no one along the way was paying attention."

While you can learn something from each instance, most often it's a series of terminations that offer the best lessons, says Heidi Daugherty, director of HR at Empower IT in Bethesda, Md. "A pattern starts to develop over time," she says.

So, how do you identify what went wrong? While there's no single magic bullet, there is a series of things HR can do to uncover the answers.


The key to learning from a termination is getting information. One option is to conduct exit interviews. Although exit interviews are commonly used for employees who voluntarily leave an organization, they can be equally insightful with terminated employees. However, because exit interviews may be awkward and highly emotional for terminated employees, Smith recommends hiring an outside party to conduct the meetings. "No one is going to tell the company that just fired them anything. What a neutral party can offer is anonymity to the individual and still get the information that the company is looking for," he says.

In some cases, however, companies don't wait until after the fact to start finding out what's wrong. Take Empower IT, for instance, where HR and line managers work together to find ways to keep struggling employees on board. It's during this process that problems surface. Jim Watson, HR manager at the American Red Cross Testing Lab in Detroit, goes through the same process. "We spend a lot of time first trying to iron things out with the individual. By the time we terminate someone, we understand why it wasn't a good fit."

Informal discussion among HR, management and employees also can go a long way toward getting an accurate read on a situation. Don Herrmann, SPHR, operations leader of HR services at Alegent Health in Omaha, Neb., calls impromptu focus groups of the terminated employee's peers to get their take on where things went wrong. "They'll almost always tell it like it is," he says.

Discussing the matter with other employees may sometimes put HR in a difficult spot, concedes Largent. However, he says, "It's the only way to find out where things broke down and find a way to structure things better so they can get that aspect of the company up to speed." And experts say that HR professionals should base their assessments on feedback from all parties, not just the manager—who might be concealing (wittingly or unwittingly) the truth of what was behind the termination.

One way to get to the bottom of a termination is to lay out the reasons it is necessary; doing so can help HR put the situation into focus. "A termination should be able to pass what I call the bulletin board test," says Higgins. "If you were to put your reasons for firing an employee up on a board, would everyone agree with your decision? If not, you need to go further to identify the problem. You should be able to spell it out clearly."

After HR gathers all the information and lays out the details, it should help create an "after-action" report, which can be an effective way to evaluate where things went awry. The report "should be put together by the first?line manager and HR," says Largent. "They should sit down with the employee's personnel folder and figure out why the individual didn't work out."

Holzschu says that "an after-action report enables HR to do the kind of tracking they need to do in order to solve the [underlying] problem." He suggests asking questions such as these:

  • Should we have been able to predict this person wasn't going to work out?
  • What department or building did this employee come from?
  • Have there been other problems in that area of the company?
  • Was there something we could have done to prevent the outcome?


If you have done enough digging, you should be able to identify the reasons that led to the employee's termination.

According to experts, the most common reasons for terminations include the following:

  • Tardiness.
  • Conflict with other employees.
  • Misconduct.
  • Inability to perform the job.
  • A poor fit with the company.

These reasons, however, may have underlying causes that reveal weaknesses in the organization. Here are some common causes for terminations, as well as steps HR can take to avoid them.

Weak managers. You may learn from exit interviews and formal reviews that the problem lay with the manager, not the employee. "If you find that a number of employees are being terminated or are quitting within a department, you should look more closely at the managers," Holzschu says. "They may be too difficult to work with or may not provide the support employees need to do their jobs."

You may find that certain supervisors can't handle their management duties. They may have been thrust into the position unprepared. "Many managers just don't have the proper training needed to manage people," says Smith. "And leaders who are lousy will kill the company. You'll see people get promoted to manager because they've been at the company for a long time, but they haven't a clue about how to be a leader."

If this is the cause, there's an important role for HR. This can be an opportunity to provide supervisors with developmental training, which will hopefully lead to better management and reduced turnover.

However, don't blanket the entire management team with training, cautions Largent. Not everyone needs it, and some may resent it. "Send only certain managers," he says, such as those who have a high turnover rate, have received complaints from employees or who request the training.

A flawed selection process. Sometimes the underlying problem can be found in the organization's selection process. In recent years, a big cause of bad hiring decisions has been the speed with which companies hire applicants. Because of the tight labor market, there's pressure on HR to fill positions—and fill them fast.

"If you're hiring warm bodies, you're hiring problems," warns Holzschu. In many termination cases, HR will find that steps normally involved with the hiring process were skipped to get a person into a chair. If so, it's time to go back to basics. At the bare minimum, don't skimp on pre-hire screening.

"Remember that you'll never see anyone better than they are on the day of the interview," says Largent.

When a candidate looks ideal, probe further. "Interview for failure, not success," Holzschu says. "Try to think about where this person's weaknesses are going to be and what their problems are."

Watson says the Red Cross invests significant time in its interviewing process. "Our interviews last one to one-and-a-half hours," he explains. "It's about getting information and about giving information."

Higgins admits that "the selection process isn't a science. At a certain level it's a judgment call." But going back and re?tracing your steps through a failed selection process can go a long way toward ensuring that the next one is more successful. "It won't guarantee a perfect match, but it improves the odds," he says.

Wrong fit. Another common error stems from hiring someone who is a bad fit with the company. "You can find the right person for the job, but that doesn't mean that they're the right person for your organization," notes Holzschu.

Watson blames a bad company fit for most of the terminations at his organization. "Most of the time the individuals aren't bad employees; they just don't fit," he notes.

To ensure that candidates will make a good fit, HR needs to have a firm grasp of the company's identity, its goals and its culture. It also must be able to translate that to prospective employees. "HR should have an appraisal system that identifies key elements with the organization so that everyone has a clear understanding of what type of company it is," Holzschu explains.

To weed out persons who won't fit, HR needs to identify key company culture traits and ask questions based on those characteristics.

An example offered by Smith illustrates the point: Eight pilots showed up in dark suits and ties for a job interview at Dallas?based Southwest Airlines. The interviewer told them that Southwest was a causal airline and asked if they would mind changing into khaki shorts that the company provided. Six of the pilots changed and two did not. "Guess which [pilots] got the job?" asks Smith.

The Verdict

The bottom line is that if the selection process is thorough and terminations are investigated properly, HR will be able to expose weak links and ultimately strengthen the organization. Terminations, as unpleasant as they may be, are necessary parts of HR. Duplicating the experience doesn't have to be.

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.

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