OH SHIT, I MIGHT NEED TO FIRE SOMEONE

When you do it the right way, firing an employee is good for your newsroom – and even better for the employee. It’s kind of like that Louis CK routine about divorce…

…which is funny because it’s true: “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” And no good job performance has ever ended in a firing.

While divorce is emotional for both sides, a firing should be emotional for only one side – which isn’t yours. You need to stay calm and plan ahead.

THREE QUESTIONS

If someone on your staff starts screwing up, figure out why…

1. Do they work hard but just don’t get it? Too often, college editors throw an unprepared student into a position because they need a body there. (“Dammit, we don’t have a features editor this semester – how about that dude who wrote his first story last month?”)

2. Did a bad thing happen to a good person? If they’ve done good work in the past but have stopped recently, reasons might include a new personal problem, a lingering illness, struggles in class, or scheduling changes with an outside job that pays the bills (because student media sure as hell doesn’t).

3. Are they just a lazy asshole? The least sympathetic screw-ups are the ones who know better. They have the talent, but they also have a problem – often with you and/or your fellow editors. Maybe they ran for editor and lost. Maybe they just don’t like your decisions. Or your face.

…while other possibilities exist, these are the archetypes of staff malfunctions. Skip to the section below that applies to your newsroom. As you’ll see, only one is a truly traditional termination.

QUESTION No. 1

If you answered yes, that’s your fault more than theirs.

You can keep trying to patiently train this dedicated newbie, but here’s the brutal truth: Hard work isn’t always good work. If you’ve ever watched American Idol, you’ve heard bad singers who rehearsed constantly. Writing, editing, design, and photography are no different.

You have three choices…

1. Find someone better. Of course, that’s why you’re in this mess. Because you couldn’t.

2. Endure what you got. Simplify the job as much as possible, reassign some tasks to others (who will resent you), and muddle through the semester.

3. Revamp your newsroom. Restructure everything to suit the personnel you have. It’s a radical but sound concept. I’ve seen student newspapers eschew features for one semester and focus just on news, sports, and opinion. I’ve seen sports sections handled entirely through photography and extended cutlines. And I’ve seen these papers win awards.

In two of these options, you have to fire this earnest but untalented individual – hopefully, from the position but not the newsroom. The ideal result is a demotion that puts them in a lesser role where their lesser talents can match the duties.

Of course, being demoted is embarrassing, and you run the risk of this hard worker fleeing the newsroom out of shame. So your best bet is to create a new post just for them.

It’s called “project-based employment.” You put this person in charge of a task instead of a job. It can be as complex as working on a major investigative story that requires an entire semester. Or it can be as simple as assembling a staff manual.

Regardless, you sell the position as reporting directly to the EIC, with weekly progress meetings. Hey, it’s not a demotion, it’s a promotion!

Do this…

1. Consult your fellow editors about the concept. If they buy in, schedule a meeting with the staffer, one other editor, and your adviser (if they’re cool enough to handle it). But no more than that, otherwise this person will feel ganged-up-on.

2. Ask how they’re feeling about their current job. They’ll probably lie and insist it’s all good. If they’re honest and admit to struggling, great. But even if they don’t, their answer gives you an opening to express some doubts.

3. Admire the effort but not the results. You’ve consulted with the others in the room, and they agree: “You’re dedicated, loyal, and a pleasure to be around. But it’s not you, it’s us. We fear we threw you into a job without the proper training. We mean to fix that.”

4. Describe a new initiative, not a new job. Explain that your fellow editors have long been disappointed about the lack of blank – whether it’s the lack of a humor blog, a man-on-the-street weekly interview, or a major project. “We want you to fill this role, and it’s so crucial that you’ll report directly to us.”

5. Announce it immediately. If they say yes, erase any lingering doubts by boasting about it to your staff. Also explain what happens to the position this individual is leaving.

6. Keep your word. Meet with this person regularly but briefly. They might fail in their new role, but it was worth a seamless transition. Because you were creative and accommodating, the failure won’t be perceived as yours.

If they do indeed fail again, you really do need to fire them. See Question No. 3 for those awful details.

QUESTION No. 2

If you answered yes, no one is to blame.

A good worker who falls on hard times is often beyond your power to cure. If you succeed, it’s because you’re a better psychologist than a boss.

When a personal problem or an illness is the cause of shoddy work, the best thing they can do seems like the worst thing for you: Tell them to take time off.

EICs at college media outlets serve for maybe a year, so there’s self-imposed pressure to get good fast – you feel like someone who’s been told they only have a few months to live.

Thus, a productive staffer who takes a few weeks off represents a huge chunk of your total time in charge. And what if they come back rusty or still down? Then you need to fire them, anyway.

Do this…

1. Empathize, don’t criticize. Once again, gather just 1-2 editors to meet, maybe over a frosty adult beverage. Tell them how you’ve been there yourself – stressed out, guilt-wracked, worry-filled.

2. Take one week off. Any more than that, and rust and doubt set in. Ask them to use this time to recharge and reassess. A week won’t solve the problem, but it can reveal a solution.

3. Ease the load. If they come back with the same issues, you can also lighten their job description. Better to write, shoot, edit, or design a little less frequently if it means higher-quality work.

Odds are against you, though. Students don’t often pull out of an existential tailspin before crashing. So for everyone’s mental health, you might need to ask this otherwise awesome person to leave.

The important word is ask. As in: “Do you want to resign?” Often, they will. That looks better on a resume than “fired.”

If they refuse to quit, then read on for the termination procedure.

QUESTION No. 3

If you answered yes, that asshole has got to go.

As you can see, terminations should be like abortions: a last resort, after all other options have failed.

But no one deserves to be fired more than this cancer in your newsroom.

Not only are they slacking off on your time and/or dime, they’re undermining your authority in the newsroom. And if you don’t stop it, you’re telegraphing to your staff: “If you don’t work hard around here, nothing happens to you.”

If you want an airtight firing, start now, because it takes some time…

1. Write a job description

Sure, you can write or update a fat-ass staff manual. But no one reads those. Not even in the Real World.

What you should do: Write some brief job descriptions and have your staff sign them. We’re talking about no more than 10 bullet points. Here’s one from the student newspaper I’ve advised for two decades…

University Press Staff Reporter

I am responsible to do the following:

Report to the News Editor and/or Multimedia Editor and/or Sports Editor.
Attend all staff and writer’s meetings – and if I can’t make it, notify my editor as soon as I realize that.
Complete, on or before deadline, 1-2 stories per week for print and/or web unless otherwise negotiated with my editor.
Check my UP-related e-mail at least twice a day and reply to any questions from staff or sources.
Complete other duties as requested.

I understand that if all duties are not performed satisfactorily, the Editor in Chief and Managing Editor will refuse to authorize payment for work not completed. Unsatisfactory work may result in termination of this employment contract.

…and it doesn’t need to be any longer than this. Why? Because job descriptions are fire extinguishers. You rarely need them, and then only when something is burning down.

If you didn’t write job descriptions in advance, don’t worry. Do it now. It takes an hour to type up the entire staff.

I’m sure you’re wondering: “Why go through all this trouble for one asshole?” Because it’s not just about this asshole. You’re signaling to the rest of the staff how you’ll handle anyone thinking about becoming the next asshole.

2. Issue a warning

Call a meeting with the asshole and two trusted witnesses. Keep it short and all smiles: “Hey, just wanted us to review. You signed this job description, remember? But you’ve been blowing deadline and blowing off meetings. Just want to issue a quick warning about that. I’m sure everything will be fine from now on, though.” Expect some attitude and lots of excuses. Keep smiling, beg off to go to another meeting, and give it another week.

3. Drop the hammer

This is a learning experience for everyone, so let’s do it right…

1. Keep it small. Choose 1-2 top editors who will join you in the termination meeting. Include your adviser – their presence will matter, even if they look concerned and say nothing (which is exactly what they should do).

2. Meet without the asshole. Everyone but the asshole should be there. Review what you’ll say and (more importantly) what you won’t. The last thing you want is to disagree among yourselves in front of the asshole.

3. Meet with the asshole. Call the meeting, and if the asshole asks why, be firm but vague: “We need to follow up from our last meeting.” The asshole will likely assume its just another chewing out.

4. Stick to the facts. Start by announcing, “This is your last day here.” Don’t let yourself be interrupted, then list the reasons – all of which should recount facts and not attitude. Broken deadlines. Skipped meetings. Ignored emails and calls. DO NOT go into details. If the asshole tries to argue each point, dismiss it with, “Look, we discussed all this at our last meeting. It’s not worthwhile for anyone to revisit all that.”

5. Keep calm and carry on. Some assholes will try to change your mind with tears. Others will curse at you, trying to drag you into a fight that will embarrass you. The cleverest will apologize in hopes of buying more time. Don’t be swayed by any of it. If you back down now, you’ll regret it.

6. Shut the hell up. This isn’t a conversation. Don’t get dragged into a debate. If you get interrupted, interrupt right back: “Please, let me finish.” Meanwhile, you want your witnesses nodding along with you, sending those nonverbal cues to let the asshole know there’s no divide-and-conquer possible here.

7. End it quickly. After your speak, the asshole might yell, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” Just smile and say OK. (You really fired them.) End the meeting by wishing them well, and everyone else should do the same.

8. Announce it immediately. You want to control the narrative, so right after the meeting ends, send a pre-written, dispassionate email that simply says, “Joe Asshole is no longer an employee at our media outlet. I won’t go into details here, out for respect for Joe. If you have questions, or if you have suggestions about how to minimize the impact of Joe’s absence, please let me know.”

9. Forget it and reset it. After one week, if anyone still wants to talk about this, wave it off: “That’s last week’s news. Let’s talk about doing this week and next week.”

10. Buy yourself a drink. Firing someone ain’t easy. Firing them right is damned hard. You did good. Salut.