It had been rumored for months, but people were still surprised by this week’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The dismissal itself was not shocking—he and the White House disagreed on many issues. It was being let by go tweet.
That’s not usual, of course, but outside of politics, there’s an increasing debate about what is the best way to best dismiss high-profile employees. Human resources departments around the world have been adjusting their procedures about letting people go. Chalk it up to the gig economy and work-from-home cultures, where bosses may never be in the same room as the people they manage, let alone feat that a fired employee is stealing company property or acting unprofessionally. There’s a generational factor as well. Millennial bosses, by a wide margin, prefer instant messaging and email over face-to-face conversations. Nevertheless, having to fire people, even high-profile executives, is often a necessary aspect of leadership. “The CEO has two obligations with their direct reports: onboarding them and exiting them,” says Debra Nunes, a Korn Ferry senior client partner.
As any HR expert will tell you, most of the time-honored ways to let people go have not changed—it’s better in person, well planned, and not rumored in advance. “It should never be a surprise,” says Ronald Porter, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the company’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. But more critically, he says, smart companies offer high-profile executives the chances to resign—a move more important than before. “Firing today is much more abrupt on people’s careers. There’s less of a stigma for people who have resigned and moved on,” he says. That’s part of a culture change. “With so many transitions in businesses today, you find a lot of people out of work for the right reason.”
To some degree, letting people go correctly may matter more in the age of the so-called purpose movement. Whether it is a matter of treating job candidates better or offering stronger exiting packages, companies are looking to maintain good relationships even with people who are being let go. “We used to say you always want the person to still buy your product,” says Porter.
The mechanics also affect those other than the person being let go. How executives are let go is watched closely by employees, investors, business partners, and other stakeholders. “The symbolic actions communicate to a broad number of stakeholders,” Nunes says.