PSA to American Organizations – “Firing” Isn’t Hot

[Originally posted on LinkedIn here]

As somebody who works with HR leaders on a daily basis, I feel obligated to speak up. When The Apprentice first aired in 2004, I looked on with extreme skepticism and substantive distaste. We were watching a reality show that was centered on the worst moment of the employee life-cycle, without giving any credence to the actual reality of firing somebody. Today, as I read the account of the Communications Director in our country’s White House and his itchy trigger finger, and observe an overall callousness happening around us as it relates to termination, the reasons for which I was initially put-off by the program have been justified.

Important note: this is not a political rant. The Apprentice was actually created by Mark Burnett, not Donald Trump (after Burnett had brought Survivor to the U.S.).

What The Apprentice Failed To Consider

From an HR perspective, involuntarily termination is one of, if not the most complicated events in Human Capital Management. I’m not here to give you a detailed account of the perils of unsuccessful involuntary terminations – there are plenty of those you can find online, or that you may have experienced first hand. However, it’s worth giving the bullet points that provide some color.

What It Affects in Organizations:

  • Recruiting
  • Retention
  • Employee relations
  • Morale
  • Productivity

What Can Result if Best Practices Aren’t Followed:

  • Lawsuits
  • Injury to competitive position
  • Whistle-blowing
  • Theft or destruction of property
  • Workplace violence (Work Cited 1)

Simply put, it has a huge effect on the human elements of organizations, and from a financial perspective, lawsuits are just the tip of the iceberg. Other direct and indirect costs of terminations (both voluntary and involuntary) are also extremely well-documented.

The Apprentice, depending on your perspective, may have been guilty of romanticizing, celebrating, or at least making light of the act of firing somebody. What it definitely didn’t do was address the “reality” of involuntary terminations.

Effective Steps in Involuntary Terminations and What They Tell Us

Even when firing somebody becomes necessary, there are a series of steps that can lessen the impact of involuntary terms, and mitigate some of the more drastic outcomes. Without going through the entire list, here are a couple worth noting as they relate to The Apprentice.

  • “Be transparent about your company’s termination policies.” In fairness, they, meaning the show’s producers, were transparent. Contestants – and that’s also a good time to remind the reader that I am aware that these are contestants, not employees – were made aware of the rules of the game and what happens at the end of their usefulness.
  • “Work with management to rapidly reach a consensus on whether and when a person should be terminated.” This is #2 on the danger list. The threats made by the Communications Director, and any subsequent action to be taken, did not even hint at consensus gathering.
  • “Treat everyone involved with dignity and respect,” (Work Cited 2) which is the #1 violation. The concept of The Apprentice is mostly antithetical to dignity and respect. If you’re firing people – in essence telling them you don’t want them – with such frequency, you open the door to these violations. Then again, the point is also that there are still correct ways of doing it when absolutely necessary.

The Final Point

That last bullet point highlights the heart of the issue, literally. Involuntary termination should be a last resort, and not something taken at all lightly. That doesn’t imply that there aren’t drastic circumstances that require the action, or even less drastic ones that simply result in a better, more successful organization (there is such a thing as “good turnover”). But when you fire somebody, in either the right or the wrong way, you take away their livelihood. You threaten their ability to put food on the table. You risk more than just a hit to their dignity or a slight to their level of respect. So, if you need to do it, you’d better get it right. Don’t make Reality TV your reality.

  1. Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States”. Retrieved 7/28/2017.
  2. 10 Steps to an Effective Termination”. Retrieved 7/28/2017.