This article is the third part in an original three-part series. Links to Enlivening Edge Magazine’s republications of Parts 1 & 2 are at the bottom of this article.
It’s rarely easy to fire someone, but for a company to function it’s a decision that inevitably has to be made every once in a while. If a manager isn’t making that call individually, you have the opportunity to create a more fair and more effective process that does so instead, perhaps with input from multiple stakeholders of the person in question. And if you find a really good process, perhaps it can even help everyone involved feel a bit better about a tough situation.
At HolacracyOne, that’s exactly what we’ve done and what we’ve found, after many years of experimentation and iteration. Now, I can honestly tell you that I love how we fire people — and I don’t know many business leaders who can honestly say they love how their organization fires people.
I find our process to be deeply human and respectful, yet also extremely effective for meeting the business needs. I’ll explain it in some detail here, since it serves as such a beautiful example of how different a firing process can be when you don’t rely on a sole manager to make the decision.
We created a “partnership review” process that we use to reflect on an individual’s relationship with the organization, and assess whether it makes sense for it to continue as it is or to change (we call our team members “partners,” because that’s what they are). These reviews are automatically scheduled for new partners after three, six, and twelve months with the organization. Beyond that, any partner may call a partnership review for any other partner at any time.
The partnership review is conducted by a group of people filling our “Partnership Assessor” role. Initially, we filled that role with five folks who have been with the organization a long time and have a high level of commitment to the partnership. But we soon realized that we were sometimes lacking key perspectives from someone who worked closely with the person we were reviewing, so we adapted the process to allow any of those five to invite others, and to allow the person in question to invite someone.
In the review, we never actually ask the emotionally charged question, “Should we fire this person?” Rather, we use a question inspired by Jim Collins: “If this person did not already work for the company, and I knew everything about them that I know now, would I advocate for hiring them again?”
The specific process goes like this: The Partnership Assessors simultaneously reveal their answer to that question. They can answer, “Clear yes,” (thumbs-up), “Clear no,” (thumbs-down), or “Neutral/unsure,” (thumb sideways). Once the answers are revealed, each person shares their reasoning one at a time, and then there’s time for discussion as desired. Once the discussion feels complete, we repeat the original question again in case the discussion influenced anyone. Again, our final answers are simultaneously revealed.
At that point, the rule is simple: to remain in the company, the person being reviewed needs more thumbs-up than thumbs-down, with any neutral/unsure votes ignored. In other words, they need more people who would advocate for versus against hiring them if they didn’t already work here. On top of that, they must have at least one thumbs-up.
That last point has proven pretty important: it means that if everyone is neutral, the person in question cannot stay in the company. Before this process, we sometimes had partners come on board who were really good people, but just didn’t impress anyone with their results. They were drawing compensation without contributing substantially.
This rule sets a higher standard: it says that we want people to work here who are thriving and contributing greatly — people we can wholeheartedly advocate for rather than just not feel strongly one way or another.
When we first started using this process, we would apply the result right away: if the partner in question didn’t get the required advocates, we would immediately set up a transition plan to have them exit the company. But that resulted in some decisions we didn’t feel super confident about, and it had a really negative emotional impact that would often linger long after the departure.
So we added another step: before applying the result of a negative review, we give the partner the option of taking a week or so to meet with any or all of the assessors involved in the review. They can use that space to ask questions, to set new intentions or make new commitments that might influence an assessor, or to discuss anything they’d like. This allows a transparent adult-to-adult conversation about why we each advocated the way we did, what our concerns are, how the partner in question feels about their partnership, and what–if anything–they’d want to change.
Once that’s done, if the partner in question requests it, we’ll throw out the negative result and go through the whole partnership review process again — although the result of that do-over review is then final.
There have been many cases now where these conversations led to a different end result from the initial review and the person stayed with the company. Often when that happened it was because of a new plan or new commitments the partner made and communicated to address concerns — ones driven entirely by the partner, not by some parental disciplinary or “improvement” process driven by a manager.
Sometimes, the partner in question doesn’t actually request the do-over review — they have some conversations with the assessors, and then choose to leave rather than request another review. When that’s happened, it’s usually felt more like we arrived at a mutual understanding that the relationship simply wasn’t a good fit, rather than an autocratic firing.
One thing I really appreciate about this process is how it honors the humanity of those involved and preserves relationships. We’ve had multiple people leave the company through this process and remain close with the assessors who were involved in the decision to have them leave. Some have even become our customers and continued to promote our work.
One even stayed in my guest room over the holidays last year; when was the last time someone you fired stayed in your guest room for the holidays? I think that’s largely because the process treats them like respected adults and invites them to be part of the decision.
Any self-managing organization can create a process like this and the others in these posts, or just copy our processes — you don’t have to be practicing Holacracy to innovate in your core processes. What Holacracy offers is a framework that allows you to more easily customize processes to meet your organization’s unique needs. Its governance meetings give each team a “meta-process” to design and evolve its many core business processes iteratively over time, with everyone on the team involved in the effort.
I hope these examples will help inspire you to find or evolve your own suite of peer-to-peer processes, perfectly customized for your unique organization and culture.