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The Terminator

God help the employee who disappoints me. I just took Hunter Lott's Complete Course on Firing.

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My company manufactures and markets feature stories for newspapers and magazines. I own the firm and serve as chief executive officer, marketing director, and head of production. I am a hands-on manager: all projects, large and small, must be approved and supervised by me. Because of current revenue levels, I can afford to employ only one person (myself). But if I should ever decide to expand, God help the individual who joins my staff.

I just took the Complete Course on Firing. (You can take it yourself on Monday, April 16, at the O'Hare Marriott.)

The $175 course, taught by Hunter Lott, lasted only one day, but believe me, it covered everything I need to know about sacking slackers. Performance appraisals, disciplinary measures, misconduct investigations, proper documentation--it's all there. I now know exactly what to say when firing someone, and I know how long the firing session should last--20 minutes, tops. Get in, bam, get out.

Case study number one: A supervisor held a three-hour "termination session" with an employee on a Friday afternoon. The following Monday, the fired woman reported for work as usual. The supervisor asked, "What are you doing here? You've been fired."

"Oh," said the woman, "is that what that meeting was all about?" It turned out the supervisor had told the woman during the session that he was "de-hiring" her, and she didn't grasp his meaning.

Like that supervisor, most people who are in a position to terminate subordinates can't bear to use the word "fired," Lott said, and they rely instead on euphemisms.

Axed. Sacked. Canned. Shown the door. Dismissed. Bounced. Given one's walking papers. Given a pink slip. Made redundant. Unemployed by unilateral consent.

"One guy even told me, 'Hunter, I don't fire people. I free them to pursue a better opportunity,'" Lott said.

That line got its share of guffaws. In fact, the class laughed a lot, because Lott is quite a funny guy. Fortyish, balding, gregarious, he's a nine-year veteran of the Padgett-Thompson firing seminar. Padgett-Thompson is a Leawood, Kansas, outfit that sells a variety of management courses, and Lott works as an independent contractor. He travels from city to city teaching his course, typically doing only one show per stop. And what a show it is.

Lott has honed his lines and gestures to near perfection. His act owes plenty to Steve Martin.

In his calmer moments, Lott likes to illustrate his points by enacting dialogues; he plays both parts.

"Ralph, you're now director of human resources. We're giving you a large raise and this corner office. Your first task is to get rid of Bill."

"Fire Bill? Bill's been on the job 13 years."

"I know, and it's your turn to try to fire him."

Bill is a slacker who deserves to be fired. But he has hung on to his job so long, Lott said, that he now has an "implied contract." That is, the company effectively has sanctioned his laziness by keeping him on. If he were suddenly fired, Bill could probably use the implied-contract argument in court and obtain a cash settlement from his ex-employer. Is this unfair? Sure, but it's one of the appalling realities of today's regulated workplace.

In the old days, the employer wielded a bat. If a worker didn't perform, boom, he was gone. Now the bat doesn't inspire much fear. People sue companies over wrongful termination, and companies lose these cases whenever the ex-employee can demonstrate that the employer acted in bad faith, or intentionally inflicted distress, or violated a contract, or discriminated against a protected class. At the start of the course, Lott told us that we'd learn pre-emptive measures to shield ourselves from all such lawsuits.

"Firing is a depressing topic," he said to the 70 people in the room, perhaps 50 of whom were women. "If you ever start to enjoy firing, you should seek psychological counseling. But the fact is, not firing bad people creates high turnover. Good people don't like working with bad ones."

Stepping up to a jumbo pad mounted on an easel, he wrote with a felt-tipped pen: "Age, sex, race, religion, national origin, handicapped." "These are the major federally protected classes," he said. "Who is not on this list? How many people do not have an age?" He paused for a few beats, let the question sink in. Then he said, "Scarier still," and put his index finger next to the word "sex." Snickers rose from the audience.

Lott slipped into the role of a dim-witted business owner who's prejudiced against all of the protected classes. He stomped through the list, making a malicious crack about each group. The last one he degraded was older workers--everybody over 40. "You know how older people's faces start to sag? Their ears get long, they grow sad-looking bags under the eyes, and their jowls hang down? Don't they remind you of basset hounds?" From then on, Lott used basset hound as a euphemism for older worker.

In cases where discrimination threatens to become an issue, he said, a company can protect itself with two policies. One is, "Do it to one, do it to all": In creating and enforcing workplace rules, treat everyone alike.

The other is to back up all rules and actions as business necessities. For example, a company seeking to hire helicopter pilots specifies that it will consider only Muslims. "Is this illegal? No, because it so happens that this company is in the business of flying pilgrims in and out of Mecca," Lott said. "Business necessity."

You can't simply make up a necessity. Consider the businessmen's airline that specified that all its flight attendants wear hot pants on the planes. This actually occurred, Lott said. Inevitably, a fired flight attendant sued the airline over the issue. "The airline spent a million dollars defending itself," Lott said, "and it lost because it couldn't show that hot pants were a business necessity."

An arm went up in the audience. As the man spoke, Lott distilled the question into terse phrases, yelling them so everyone could hear. "Manager fired--getting two weeks' severance--another one at the same level to be fired--doesn't deserve severance because he's insubordinate--can severance be withheld in the second case?"

Lott asked the man: "What is the company policy?"

"We leave it up to each supervisor's discretion."

"I hate that answer! I want to be consistent. Would an outsider say your action was reasonable and not discriminatory?"

"Well, ah," the man said, "the first manager's white, and ah, the other's black."

Lott clutched his chest and staggered backward. "Ooooooooh!" he cried. Then, composing himself, he said flatly, "If it were me, I'd pay him. See, I've got to think of how outsiders would look at me. I have what I call the 60 Minutes test. Would I want to go on 60 Minutes against Mike Wallace and defend this action? Technically we can be just right, but still not pass the 60 Minutes test.

"It's like a case where you have a flight attendant who's got 24 years' exemplary service. She works a six-hour flight without sitting down for a break. As she's walking off the plane, she grabs a couple of half-pint cartons of milk, which she knows will be thrown out anyway. She's caught, boom, fired for stealing. The airline had a right to fire her, but how would this play on 60 Minutes? I mean, you can just imagine this wimpy little vice president of personnel saying to Mike Wallace, 'If we let them steal milk, next it will be liquor--and then a plane will be missing!'

"I'd say 90 days' grounding, at most," Lott concluded. "But to fire her in a case like that? No, you're asking for 60 Minutes trouble."

An arm went up. As a woman described a predicament she faced, Lott condensed: "Disciplinary case--employee lied--was warned--lied again--notes in the file to this effect--getting ready to fire him--does the employee have to sign something for the documentation to be effective?"

Lott laid out the options: If the supervisor warns the employee about lying, she needs either a witness or a document initialed by the employee acknowledging that he was warned. The woman said there had been no witness and the employee refused to initial any documents.

"OK, now here's a tactic that's very sneaky, but it works," Lott said. "When he refuses to initial the memo, you turn over the form and get him to write, 'I refuse to sign this form' and initial it." Everyone in the room cracked up. Over the bedlam, Lott yelled, "And they'll do it! This trick will work as long as you don't laugh!"

Another case was presented. "Basset hound fired--asks to be left on the payroll for a month in lieu of severance--has a heart attack before the month is up--gets eight months' sick leave--earns more vacation time--carried on payroll for one and a half years--finally fired--sues for age discrimination."

The lesson here was to not let any fired person stay on the payroll in lieu of severance. But for this crowd, that was too obvious, so Lott didn't bother with a full answer. Instead he simply scowled, pointed an index finger toward the ceiling, and shouted, "Do not mess with basset hounds! No 20-year-old could have come up with a strategy as creative as that!"

As the lunch break began, several people approached Lott before he could slip away from the front of the room. They all wanted advice on handling sticky situations at work. One by one, he obliged them, using jokes and gestures and never seeming to grow impatient. I watched him for 10 or 15 minutes and then headed for lunch. On the way out, I overheard snatches of shop talk from lingering groups of classmates.

"She tried to sue, but I had documented. . ."

"He lied about it, we knew he lied. . ."

"Have you ever had to fire somebody?"

"Oh, about 15 times."

I returned to the meeting room 20 minutes before class was scheduled to resume. Four or five people were at their seats, one of them studying a brochure that was tucked inside the folder we had received that morning. The brochure advertised self-help books and tapes for businesspeople. "Supervise Your Way to Success." "How to Become a Super Seller." "Coping With Stressful Situations."

One of the tapes, "Front-Line Interviewing/The Firing Session," is narrated by Hunter Lott. On the front of the cassette, Lott is shown standing with one hand on his hip and the other held out, open-palmed, as if he were speaking frankly to a classroom full of managers. "Take the uncertainty out of hiring--and the stress out of firing," says the copy next to the cassette. "These are the skills top managers rely on to find 'the perfect fit' for jobs and to legally fire problem employees."

On the back page, I learned of a terrific bargain. For $599 I could buy, in a single package, every product featured in the brochure. Given the regular retail price of $1,120, this represented a 46 percent savings. I wondered if any of my classmates would purchase this sort of stuff. I looked over at the man who had been studying the brochure a minute ago.

Basset hound.

Slicked-back gray hair. Clunky glasses with black plastic frames. Big leather briefcase open on seat beside him. Pen in right hand. Stroked forehead with left hand. Moved pen to brochure and made check mark. Paused. Moved pen and carefully drew circle around something.

I did not think I wanted to watch him anymore.

I looked over at another basset hound, a pleasant-looking woman, to see what she was doing. In her hands was a second item from our package, The Manager's Guide to Employment Law. This 40-page manual provides a brief summary of the major federal statutes and regulations that cover employment actions. I pulled out my copy of the booklet, scanned the table of contents, and flipped to page 25: "Sexual Harassment Defined."

"Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. . ." I decided this didn't pertain to my place of business, and I tucked the manual back into my folder and pulled out the third and last document we had received, "The Complete Course on Firing." This was just an outline, but on pages seven and eight it contained a few sample problems that Lott had told us to work on during the lunch break.

Problem one:

Empty beer cans and liquor bottles have been found in trash cans surrounding the employee break area. Company rules prohibit the consumption of alcohol on company premises, and management posts a notice near the time clock to remind employees of the ban. The notice warns that violators will be terminated and that unannounced inspections will take place.

During one such inspection two managers confront a worker who is holding a paper bag containing a partially consumed can of beer. The employee argues that he has given years of service to the company, that company rules state that discretion can be used in determining discipline, and that termination would be disproportionate and unfair. Do you terminate?

"Yes," I wrote.

Why or why not?

There were ten blank lines for my answer, but I only needed three. "Because the advance warning to him was explicit, and the example-to-others factor outweighs the length of service to company. Anyway, if he's drinking on his lunch break, he's probably got problems."

So much for him.

On to problem two:

A 57-year-old employee who has been with the company for 19 years is granted a six-month leave of absence. Before she leaves, she signs a form stating she understands that the company will make an effort to hold her job open but she is not guaranteed reinstatement.

Shortly before the end of her leave, the employee asks for her job back and is told that it has been filled; she applies unsuccessfully for several other job openings. The employee claims that the company has been unfair and is discriminating against her because of age. The company claims that most workers returning from leave are placed in lower-level jobs. Do you reinstate?

I thought of Lott's commandment: Don't mess with basset hounds. "No," I wrote.

Why or why not?

"She signed the form." I imagined myself pulling out the signed form and holding it up to the camera as Mike Wallace sat nearby, grim and momentarily speechless. Bam. Case closed.

Problem three:

An employee of 15 years is promoted to assistant store manager but, following a transfer, there are problems and the worker is demoted and transferred back to his original location. He files federal EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) charges stating that he has been discriminated against because of race. The company agrees to pay him higher wages than his job classification normally pays and to give him another chance when an assistant store manager position opens up.

Several months later the employee refuses to do some cleanup work that his supervisor asks him to do. Two days later, the employee is given a written warning for cashing bad checks at the store. The employee blows up and threatens to shut the store down. He berates and yells at his supervisor in front of the customers and employees. Do you terminate?

Was this a trick question? I mean, the guy threatened to shut the store down and then publicly berated his boss. If this were my store, either of those things would have given me sufficient reason to instantly free him to pursue a better opportunity--without a nickel of severance pay. "Yes," I wrote.

Why or why not?

"Gross misconduct."

Three up. Three down. I could get to like this.

Sex seemed to be on everyone's mind as the afternoon session began. Lott fielded several questions in a row about sexual harassment. At one point he described what he said was a real case, "an office romance between two lovers who were married, but not to each other." The man decided to end it.

"No more whoopee," he said.

"Want more whoopee," replied the woman, who happened to be the man's boss. She demoted him. He sued his employer and was awarded $190,000. Part of the settlement went toward his divorce.

A woman in the seminar described a vexing case to Lott: A man in the office had been staring at a female coworker. The woman complained that the staring made her uncomfortable. The supervisor asked a third worker if the woman's complaint was valid. It was. When the supervisor asked the man to stop staring, the man quit his job in a huff, saying he was insulted. The problem is that he was a good employee--better than the one he stared at. Did the supervisor do the right thing?

"Yes, yes, yes!" exclaimed Lott. "There are too many weirdos in the world to let a situation like that go on. This kind of stuff does not belong at work. It's not her problem that the guy can't keep his eyes off her."

"Well, what if he had not quit his job, but kept staring at her after I talked to him?" asked the woman.

"Fire him," Lott said.

"But it would have been tricky. He's black and she's white."

"OK, there's always a risk in a case like that. But I'd much rather have him try to sue me for race discrimination than run the risk of him doing something to her after she'd already complained about the staring."

"Yes, but he was a more valuable employee," the woman repeated.

"That would make a great quote on 60 Minutes, wouldn't it?" Lott said, ending the discussion.

Lott reviewed the three sample problems--I had gotten them all right: bam, bam, bam--and then spent an hour hammering home the notion that bosses have to work up to a termination incrementally. A problem employee must be given chances to improve. If he doesn't improve, he must be warned that firing is a possibility. Meanwhile, this process must be documented with written evaluations and memos to the employee's file. Each item should, if possible, be signed or initialed by the employee and the supervisor. When Mike Wallace comes sniffing around, there has to be clear proof that the company did its best to avoid termination.

Finally, Lott got around to what he called "the firing session." He told about the time, early in his career, when he worked for an insurance company. He'd barely been promoted to supervisor when his boss made him fire someone.

"Hunter, you've got to fire Bob."

"You're crazy. I just started this job. I've never fired anybody. And besides, I don't want to fire Bob, he's a nice guy."

"Hunter, either fire Bob or we're firing you."

"I want to fire Bob."

The termination was a "surprise firing": Bob had no idea it was coming. Nor had Lott prepared himself mentally for the task. Certainly he'd never done any termination role-playing, which he thinks is important preparation for all supervisors.

"When you surprise-fire somebody," he said, "they'll either try to beat you up or they'll break down. Bob broke down. I did, too. And when it was over he went out of my office and yelled, 'They fired me! They're gonna fire all of us!'"

Another time, Lott fired somebody at 1:30 in the afternoon. The person kept lingering in Lott's office, wouldn't leave. Finally Lott asked why the fellow was staying put. The guy said, "You know I ride in a car pool, and it's not leaving till five o'clock."

Lott asked the class, "Did you ever try to entertain someone you've just fired?"

It's easier to get fired than to fire somebody, Lott said, and several of his listeners nodded and murmured their assent. Still, a few precautions can help ensure that the session doesn't become unnecessarily difficult: The supervisor should memorize the opening, make sure the speech includes the word "fired," keep the session brief, and never reverse the decision. "Don't argue, don't give advice, and don't apologize," he said. Also, don't hold the session in the supervisor's office, which tends to produce something called "the woodshed effect."

A hand went up. Lott summarized the question: "Marginal employee quits but doesn't put it in writing--comes to work the following day, says, 'I feel better now,' wants his job back--does it again a month later--what do you do?"

"Next time it happens," Lott said, "accept the resignation on the spot, get it in writing, sign it, date it. It's a done deal. OK, he comes back to work the next day and says, 'I feel better now.' You point to the letter and say, 'Soooooo do I!'"

As I headed home after the seminar, I felt that I would never have any problem terminating an employee. Lott had showed me that it was possible to fire fairly and effectively. Armed with my Manager's Guide to Employment Law, I would be able to steer clear of any legal snags. I knew which words to use, and which to avoid. I almost felt as though my company should hire a series of part-time assistants, maybe one per fiscal quarter, and terminate each of them after a week of employment, just so I could stay in practice.

But then I got home and turned on the news. In Louisville that morning, while I'd been sitting in the seminar, a man had gone to a printing plant, shot seven people to death, and then taken his own life. He had worked at the plant until the company had put him on a long-term mental disability leave. He thought he had been mistreated by the firm, and he had exacted his revenge.

I guess it just goes to show that while you can free an employee to pursue a better opportunity, there's no way to prevent him from doing some firing of his own. Maybe I won't expand my work force after all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Chung.

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