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Recovering from the Loss of a Popular Employee

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

QDear Crucial Skills,

We had to terminate a coworker who was very popular among the staff and the termination has resulted in fear and poor morale. In fact, many employees have left due to the poor morale. Human resources stated that we cannot extrapolate on the termination, nor can we have a meeting to discuss it further.

How can I have a crucial conversation with staff that can alleviate their fears and maintain confidentiality?

Jittery Survivors

A Dear Jittery,

We’ve struggled with this at VitalSmarts over the years as well. We work hard to have a culture based on dialogue, and we also understand that there are few more powerful teaching moments than when an employee is dismissed. All eyes and ears are perked and people wonder, “How can I make sure that never happens to me?”

We’ve had a couple of instances where individuals have grossly violated our values and they’ve been terminated immediately. In these cases, we wanted to be able to openly discuss what had happened and help the rest of the team understand more clearly our values through the process.

In the end, however, we’ve decided that if information of a highly personal nature was not already public, we would not make it public. Even in cases where someone behaved egregiously, we did not want to shame them publicly by sharing intimate details with those who weren’t already privy to them.

We’ve found that we don’t have to discuss specifics of individual cases in order to achieve these three goals—reassuring the team, teaching our values, and honoring privacy. We can honor all three by using the moment to teach how we address accountability concerns. For example, when someone is dismissed for performance problems, we can gather the team and remind them how we deal with all performance issues. For example, we reassure them that:

  1. If you are dismissed for performance problems, it should never be a surprise.
  2. There is an extended process of coaching wherein you will receive candid feedback from your team when you aren’t measuring up to their needs.
  3. If coaching isn’t working, you are placed on a remedial action plan (RAP). You will always know when you are on a RAP because a) you will be notified in writing; and b) you will no longer receive team bonus payouts.

This is usually met by a collective sigh of relief. Most everyone now knows, “Oh, I am not at risk because I am not on a RAP and am not being coached by my team toward specific gaps.” Or if they are in this process, they are reminded about the importance of taking advantage of it.

In cases where the problem is not performance, but violation of VitalSmarts values, we re-teach the values. We explain to the team that there are very few reasons anyone would be summarily dismissed and outline those reasons—verbal or physical harassment of a colleague, theft of company resources, etc. You need have no doubt about your job security here if you are steering clear of these obviously inappropriate actions.

We are careful not to make it appear as though we are sending coded messages about the individual who was recently fired. Simply sharing this information is reassuring enough—provided we are living by what we share with integrity.

Best wishes in your crucial conversation with your team.


Joseph Grenny

“If I haven’t challenged you, I haven’t helped you.” Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations

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