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Fire stupidly, lose your own job (eventually)

Fire stupidly, lose your own job (eventually)


Used with permission of the author:
Author: Jay Shepherd

CEO — Attorney
Shepherd Law Group
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
20 November 2007

The following article originally appeared in "Gruntled Employees" at www.gruntledemployees.com

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned today, largely because of how he mishandled the firing of nine Assistant US Attorneys last year. We covered the story last March in "Attorneygate moral: Don't fire stupidly," where we sagely predicted that Gonzales would be out by Opening Day. (Missed it by this much.) For comprehensive background on the firings and their aftermath, read the excellent summaries at Peter Lattman's ever-fabulous Wall Street Journal Law Blog here and at the Washington Post's site here.

Gruntled Employees doesn't much care about the politics of the issue. Instead, the important lesson for employers and managers and HR professionals is the one we talked about in March:

The moral is: Fire who you want to fire, own the decision, and then shut up about it.

It's hard to fire someone, if you're any kind of a real human being. And it should be, because it's someone else's life your messing with. You should struggle with the decision. But once you've made the decision, you have to act on it and own it. Resist the temptation to make explanations and excuses that (you hope) will get you or your company off the hook.

In the Attorneygate case, who is to say whether firing the AUSAs was fair? Doesn't matter (except to the AUSAs, their families, and the decision makers who pulled the trigger). The law says that they are subject to removal by the President. Period. They are — like most American workers — employees at will.

After-the-fact explanations for why you fired someone rarely tell the whole story. The real answers are usually incredibly complicated, and don't sound as clean as a better-manufactured reason. But the manufactured reason isn't the truth. And people will generally learn the truth, eventually. And when people start to see the holes in your just-right story, they're going to think you're covering up something more nefarious, like discrimination, or politics, or favoritism.

The Attorney General could have said this: "We fired these prosecutors because we wanted to make a change and put some other people in those spots. And the law says we can." It might not make for a pretty story, but it was probably the truth. The story would have died in a few days, and Alberto Gonzales might still be running the Justice Department and waiting for Justice Stevens to retire. Instead, it's Monster.com for him.

Don't fire stupidly. Fire smartly, quickly, and honestly. And then shut up.

Jay Shepherd has been protecting employers in and out of court for a dozen years, and he's defeated some of the largest law firms in the USA. He's nationally known for his expertise in noncompete lawsuits and related business-employment litigation. Jay has defended employers large and small in discrimination cases in state and federal courts, and has helped management solve many labor-relations problems. He has taught seminars to thousands of employees, managers, and other lawyers on employment-law topics from sexual harassment to wage litigation. Jay's married to an employment lawyer at another Boston firm and has two young daughters (who are not employment lawyers). Jay's written a 700-page draft of a legal thriller, which someday he may have time to finish editing. Check out Jay's award-winning employer blog, Gruntled Employees, recently named Best HR Law site by Human Resource Executive magazine. He can be contacted at .

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