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How to fire employees

Ysinne Matola, the VP of people at Heydoc, gives her top tips for firing employees, while keeping cultural differences across countries top of mind.

By Anisah Osman Britton

Ysinne Matola is the VP of people at Heydoc, a management software for the medical world. She’s spent the last 12 years in a people role in Paris and London, at tiny startups and corporates. Firing well is a topic she is passionate about — her focus is on ensuring that managers understand cultural differences across countries and how these need to be reflected in how people are let go. Here are her top tips: 

The best policy around firing is to avoid it.

If you often find yourself letting people go it’s important to look at your hiring process. Be very clear about the skills you need and behaviours you’re evaluating. Have a performance based hiring model — use scorecards that you can use as evidence of skill and that are comparable from person to person. Once they’re in, make sure you set clear expectations, evaluate performance regularly, provide actionable feedback often and keep a written track of it all. Importantly, in a scaling startup, you need to think how a candidate’s going to fit into the business’ plans over the next few years — not just right now while you’re fighting fires. 

Firing should never come as a surprise.

To be clear, we are talking about performance based firing here (not about illegal activity or other extreme reasons for immediate dismissal). You should have had prior discussions with the employee on their performance where you’ve given actionable feedback with clear deadlines and goals. This gives someone a fair chance to turn things around. You should have had an opportunity to say “Hey, if these things aren’t improved on, we’ll have to have further chats about what we do.” If things are still not great, then don’t wait around to let them go. 

Firing requires emotional intelligence.

Act decently and show respect no matter how bad a person or a team’s performance was. Firing 1k people over Zoom at the same time is a no go. Start with a one to one to explain the decision that has been made. Take into consideration cultural differences — how feedback is expected to be given (and received) varies across Europe. 

Then outline what it means — severance package, whether they are expected back in the office or not, rights they have, and support you’re willing to provide as they move forward.

Allow the person being let go to react, to challenge you, to express their emotions and to ask questions. Managers need to get more comfortable with having uncomfortable discussions. If your company can, either hire a coach or get the people team to train managers on how to navigate these conversations. Often, a person being fired will freeze and won’t say anything in that meeting. If it is appropriate, offer them a follow up conversation once they’ve had time to process the news. Finally, discuss how you will communicate the news to the team. 

Communicate openly with your team — without publicly shaming.

You should communicate the reasons someone was let go to the team — but make it about how company goals weren’t being met, rather than personally attacking someone’s work. Take into consideration how the person being let go would like to communicate their departure as much as possible while being honest about your reasoning. The reason to do this is to ensure the rest of the team don’t feel insecure in their roles going forward. 

Be aware of local employment laws.

Ensure you have the right advice and team around you to understand the legal framework you’re operating in — how and when you can let people go is very dependent on the country they’re hired in. Most European countries have set processes around firing someone. You’ll need to take into consideration local employment laws and whether there is a required severance package, like covering health insurance for a few months. Restrictions may include needing to send warning letters to employees or having to get approval from the local labour authorities before letting someone go. There are also trade unions that deal with employee relations and have employee representatives. If an employee is part of a union, there may be set procedures on letting them go that you must adhere to.

Anisah Osman Britton is coauthor of Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter, which comes out weekly on Wednesdays. Sign up here.

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