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How Do You Replace an Employee Who Doesn't Know She's Being Fired?

How Do You Replace an Employee Who Doesn't Know She's Being Fired?

Alison Green | Ask A Manager

August 18, 2010

A reader writes:

I’ve been going through your archives to see if you had any advice on replacing a current employee before they know they are being replaced…when that employee is HR. In a small company with one HR person we certainly can’t place an ad – and they want to have viable candidates before this person is let go.

This is due to serious performance issues which have been addressed, time and again, yet continue. I am the one picking up the slack for what isn’t being done and am now involved in the replacement process.

The one HR professional I knew who was on the market got a job 15 days before I was asked to see if she was interested. That exhausted all our personal connections – such as they were.

This can’t be uncommon – but it’s really hard to find anything written about this.

Well, the first thing I’d ask is: Are you sure that’s the order you have to do things in? I strongly advise firing her first and then launching your search — largely because it feels like the right thing to do, but also because you want the strongest candidate pool possible, and if you’re sneaking around conducting the search covertly, you’re almost definitely going to compromise your ability to do that.

Yes, firing her first does mean that the position would be vacant for a short time (likely 4-6 weeks, as long as you move through the hiring process with reasonable speed), but I’d be surprised if it weren’t possible to find a way to cover her essential responsibilities for 4-6 weeks until you get someone new in there. After all, if she were suddenly hospitalized for a month, you’d find a way to make it work.

If there’s no one on staff who can cover the essentials, look into getting a temp with an HR background to fill in while the position is open.

If for some reason you’re absolutely committed to starting the search before she’s gone — and again, I strongly recommend against it — you could (a) use a search firm so that applications aren’t coming into your office, and make sure the search firm knows they can’t identify your company in the ad, or (b) set up an anonymous email address for applications and do the screening yourself … but I think it’s fairly shady, and it doesn’t send a great message to other employees who may hear about it.

There’s another option too, although it depends on the employee’s character: Does she have enough integrity that you could simply be open with her about the fact that it’s not working out? In some cases, you can tell an employee that it’s not working out and mutually set a date for their last day that’s a month or two away, with the understanding that that will give them time to look for a job and you time to look for a replacement.

Important caution: This only works with employees who you know won’t be so hostile or demoralized that you risk them poisoning the office environment or sabotaging the company in some way. And if you find that either one of those things is happening, you need to be prepared to have them leave immediately. But with the right person, in the right culture, this can work. (You can read about one of the times I did it here.) Listen to your gut on this though; if you have doubts, don’t do it.

Anyone else have other thoughts?

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