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Firing a friend

Terminations are rough business for a manager – something made much worse when the worker is a friend (just ask Brian Burke)

By Todd Humber

I’ve never had to fire a friend. Knock on wood, that will never happen.

Experts, of course, tell managers not to get too close and chummy with direct reports. After all, it makes things awkward when it comes to things like discipline and terminations, whether for cause or because of a downsizing.

But it’s not always that easy. It’s a delicate line to walk, no doubt, but there’s plenty of upside for managers in developing close relationships with staff. It boosts morale and makes it more likely they’ll go the extra mile and work collaboratively.

Brian Burke, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, recently went through the gut-wrenching experience of firing a friend when he dropped the axe on head coach Ron Wilson. He had no choice — the Leafs weren’t playing well and had dropped out of the playoff picture, and the scene at the Air Canada Centre was getting ugly. Chants of “Fire Wilson” erupted loudly at the last home game he coached.

Burke and Wilson have a long history — they’ve been pals since 1973.

“The last couple of days have been brutal,” Burke said shortly after the termination. “We were freshmen together. We played four years together in college, a more close-knit experience than playing pro. But I have to do what’s right for the team.”

Burke was also putting his friend out of his misery, as well.

“It was clear to me it would be cruel and unusual punishment to let Ron coach another game in the Air Canada Centre. I wasn’t going to put Ron through that, it was hard to listen to, hard to watch,” he said.

Making tough decisions is par for the course when it comes to leadership positions. Whether the GM of a professional sports team or the vice-president at a bank, there are hard, unpopular decisions that have to be made.

But firing a friend? There’s no script to follow there, no easy way out. All you can do is be compassionate and honest and remember the old adage: “It’s not personal. It’s business.”

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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