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Act with class, decency when firing a worker

The Detroit Lions playbook on how they fired a much-loved coach is worth examining
Jim Caldwell fired as coach of the Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell stands on the sidelines against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

By Todd Humber

Last week, the Detroit Lions fired head coach Jim Caldwell after a mildly successful four-year stint as head coach. He won more football games than he lost, and he took the team to the NFL playoffs twice.

I know this isn’t a sports column, but stick with me for a minute — because the statement the team owner made upon firing him was extraordinary.

Martha Firestone Ford — an auto tycoon’s name if there ever was one — had this to say after giving Caldwell his walking papers.

“I believe Jim is one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach,” she said. “Not only did he guide us on the field to three winning seasons, but he also set a standard of excellence off the field that had a tremendous impact on everyone in our organization and our entire community.”

She pointed out the glowing comments from his players, noting “his influence on them transcended the game of football and will positively serve them throughout their lives. Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful.”

It’s the kind of language we often hear when somebody retires, or moves on following a successful career. It’s not the kind of language we ever hear when somebody is being terminated for not meeting goals.

You can pore over the statement, posted on the Detroit Lions’ official website, ad nauseam. And you won’t find a single negative statement about Caldwell. To a casual observer, it raises the question — why the heck was this man fired?

To an HR professional or an employer, it raises this question: What do we say to colleagues, subordinates and perhaps even the public when someone is terminated for poor performance? And what do we say to the person being fired?

I’ve seen my share of terminations over the years that have run the gamut between class and crass. And I can certainly tell you my preferred route when the pink slips come out — and I think it is the exact playbook the Detroit Lions followed.

You owe the worker honesty, but you also owe them decency. No doubt Caldwell was given the reasons for his termination, clearly, behind closed doors. (In his case, the goal was making the playoffs. The Lions didn’t accomplish it this year and didn’t show enough progress under his leadership. In the world of pro sports, four years is an eternity and he didn’t get the job done.)

If you’re firing any employee, you owe them an honest explanation on why you’ve come to this conclusion — whether it’s due to poor performance or simply a business decision that eliminated a position. John Hobel, the former publisher of Canadian HR Reporter, once said: “Employers put on their best face when they hire staff. The same attitude should exist when they are let go.”

That means not dragging a fired employee’s name and reputation through the mud on the way out the door. You never need to tell employees or customers the specifics when announcing the departure — but you can definitely thank the person for his work and his service.

Co-workers will often, clearly, understand the reasons why the person is no longer on the payroll. There’s no point in spiking that ball. Plus, the friends he left behind will appreciate the absence of a parting shot by management.

Being fired is never fun. Delivering the news is arguably even harder. But in a no-win situation, taking the high road and acting with class can make a big difference for the morale of a team and the reputation of an organization. 

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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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