Firing PR Agency Employees: Best Practices From 11 Agency Leaders

Firing employees is the hardest thing we, as PR professionals have to do. You've tried to make things work, you've coached them and shifted roles, but they simply aren't fitting in or working out. You want to let them go, but you need to be sure clients have been handled properly, and you are concerned about team morale. 

How quickly should you move once you've made the decision? What kind of severance package do you offer and how do you communicate to the team and clients? 

We asked 11 PR agency leaders what they recommend - what is their process?

Abbie Fink, HMA Public Relations: This will be the hardest thing you have to do. Letting someone go is never easy. Be direct and straightforward, do not apologize for the decision. The only recommendation I would have is tell the individual before the team. Fortunately, I've only had to do this twice in my 24 years of working at the agency. And in both cases the morale of the agency actually improved. The team is well aware when someone else isn't pulling their weight, and they are appreciative you made a decision. When you do tell your team please tell them the agency is doing fine and that you will answer any questions they have individually.

<Anonymous>: Seek out a labor attorney before you do anything to gain the counsel you need to make sure this is all done correctly beforehand. Pay the fees to do it right. Let the person go first, then tell the team. You may think your team has your back but it could backfire by telling them first. Don't tell your team much other than he/she is no longer with us and what you are doing to shore up the team and client work. It's a business not a friendship. One other point: if you think this person needs to go, most times, so does the rest of your staff. Just make sure they know there are no other pending layoffs. They will care about their place in your firm and whether they might be next. Place a sense of security in the messaging without guaranteeing anyone's job.

Rob Biesenbach: Consult an attorney, but people, especially young people who may not understand the legalities, always want to know what happened. I think it's helpful to explain that personnel matters have to be private and they would certainly want that if the subject was them.

Jon Goldberg, Reputation Architects: While you're delivering the news, have your #2 or tech person shut off his/her network access. Finally, make sure the team knows they can come to you with any questions. You want to convey clearly that this was a difficult and isolated decision made with the best interests of both the company and employee in mind. Have a written separation agreement ready. I recommend you develop the first one in consultation with a lawyer or HR expert just to be sure your state laws are covered, but after that you'll have it in case you need it again. The most common facets are a release from any claims by the employee, agreed severance and other monies they are entitled to, e.g., accrued PTO, non-disparagement language, a reminder about your reference policy (dates and compensation only), and a reminder of whatever code or covenants they are subject to (NDA, non-circumvention, non-compete, etc.). Clear, simple language, avoiding legalese. Signed agreement and return of all company property are required to release final check, including severance. DO NOT ask for signature on the spot. Encourage them to read it carefully and get back to you in a few days, which prevents them from claiming coercion.

Alice Chapman, MP&F Public Relations: Set your talking points and stick with them. In some situations we have acknowledged the person is not a good fit and have given them time to find another job - and save face. It is going to be awful, but you will get through it and everyone will be happier in the end.

Natalie Ghidotti, Ghidotti Communications:  I had to do my first firing about three years ago, and it was so tough. Good person but young and wasn't getting it. Definitely tell that person first and also keep it short and simple in terms of the actual firing. If appropriate, volunteer to give him references for jobs he/she would be really good for (he was great at social content but just not the entire PR realm). I ended up giving him a reference for a social-only job that he still has today.

Ken Jacobs, Jacobs Consulting and Executive Coaching: The key is don't belabor it. Get right to the point. Pull the BandAid, it's actually kinder for them. You can tell them they have the potential to be a star, but it's not going to be there, and you'll help them be a star elsewhere (If you can). And if they have an office, do it there, not in your office if possible. This way, you can state the news, state the severance and offer help you'll give them, and get out. If it's in your office, they may linger in the chair and it will go on forever, and that doesn't help anyone. And don't make the mistake many leaders do, by telling them them what a tough decision it was, how you labored over it, and how hard this is for you: Believe me, it's tougher on them than it is for you!

Jason Mudd, Axia PR: Check with your local employment attorney to verify local employment laws. Many say one week of severance for every year worked is a reasonable standard. If you recently hired him/her away from a perfectly good job - my biggest concern - you may need to be more generous. I'm not sure about notifying staff - minus shareholders- in advance, if you're her/his direct supervisor. Otherwise, the hiring manager should handle it.

P.S. Culture of the company should be a higher priority than client satisfaction, in my experience. Easy to say. Harder to live. Better for all. If you've ever seen "Moneyball" or "Up In the Air", the firing language they use there is about as much as needed, seriously. Short and to the point. (asking Jason for language to offer as a download)

Greg Brooks, West Third Group: Seek experienced HR counsel if this is your first termination. But after that? You should have processes in place so you don't need to seek that counsel out every time unless it's an unusual situation. Additional input:

* Don't be alone in the room with the person you're terminating. Have someone else from the management team there as a witness.

* I always offered a package of three to four weeks’ pay if they'd resign because I didn't want my UI rates to go up. But it's important to know how firings impact your rates and you should talk with someone who specializes in that. I certainly wouldn't have handed it out if I didn't think it was the cost-effective way to go.

I've had to fire a lot of people over a long career, and the best advice I can give for the actual meeting is to start right in with zero sugar coating: "We're meeting to discuss your resignation or termination. If you want to talk about the issues that led to this decision, we can meet separately before your departure. Today's meeting is simply about what happens next." Yes, it will be shocking -- but that's the point -- no dread, just a splash of cold water that lets you quickly control the meeting.

Rory Carlton, Arketi Group: It is hard, but if it's the right thing for the firm it is almost certainly also the right thing for the individual, and they will see that in time. Also, my experience has been that the rest of the team breathes a sigh of relief because they have been aware of and dealing with the poor fit of the person longer than you have. Morale usually goes up.

What would you add?