The Art of Firing People

Sept. 20, 2006
In this excerpt (Chapter Three) from Peter Rost's book, "The Whistleblower – Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman," Dr. Rost describes training that he and other Pharmacia executives received on how to fire employees, following Pfizer's acquisition of the company.

Editor's Note: Chapter Three of "The Whistleblower – Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman" is hereby reprinted with permission of Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, N.Y.

AS THE APRIL 2003 Pfizer takeover date rapidly approached, some more Pharmacia employees received job offers from the new organization, many of whom said "no thanks," but many didn’t hear anything at all from Pfizer. At the same time, we silently watched as wave after wave of Pfizer managers were promoted into new positions, and the level of cynicism at Pharmacia grew day by day.

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As the merger loomed, those of us with managerial responsibilities were told that we needed to learn how to properly fire our subordinates. That was when the consultants specializing in "career transition" moved in. By now, we really felt like cattle on our way to the slaughter chute, certain that after we had killed off our subordinates, we’d be next.

To learn the art of firing people, we were asked to participate in a large meeting at an offsite conference center. From the outside, this looked like any regular business meeting. People had to sign in and everyone got a name tag, lest unauthorized employees, or — worst of all — a journalist try to get the inside scoop.

A man and a woman from the outsourcing firm started by telling us how their services made them a productive part of the food chain. Firing employees had been elevated to an art form, apparently. Despite my mixed feelings, I couldn’t help being fascinated by their presentation. It was like listening to a law enforcement officer explain how to most effectively immobilize a prisoner.

No Crying

We were told that we needed to choose an appropriate setting for the termination meetings.  If we expected trouble, we could have an "exit team" waiting around the corner, invisible to the unsuspecting target. The exit team could, if needed, carry out a screaming and panicked employee who refused to leave, I suppose.

After having welcomed the employee we were going to terminate, we were told to "express interest in the person’s comfort in the room." I guess the firing manager was supposed to ask if it was too warm, too cold or just right. Or perhaps make sure that the victim found his or her chair comfortable.

It was important to note that "small talk" should be kept brief, e.g. two minutes. The presenters — by now I was thinking of them as "Terminators" — strongly suggested not waiting too long before letting the axe fall.

The second step was to "set the stage." Here, the manager should express his understanding of the acquisition. To be honest, I didn’t see how saying, "Pharmacia shareholders will make a lot of money on this transaction, but many of us will be out of a job, so let’s be happy for our shareholders," would go over too well.

The third step was to actually do the deed. For any trigger-happy supervisor who didn’t get to play dictator at home, this was the moment when he took control of another human being’s life. He could announce the "separation," another euphemism for "firing," perhaps intended to make people associate it with simply being apart, like a vacation — a long vacation.

I could see necks crane as we got to this point in the meeting. There were hundreds of managers in the room and you could hear a pin drop. We all waited for the next set of instructions. The man at the podium explained that it was "imperative to plan and rehearse the statement that announces the separation." We should also present the decision as definite and final, and we might want to repeat what we had just said to our victim.

Once that was done, we should present the reasons for termination in such a way that the separated employee clearly understood and remembered that he was being fired. That would be for the really hard-headed ones who didn’t listen, I guess. Every organization has a few of those. My mind started to wander and I thought of the day when I would have to fire Isadora Pelozzi. Perhaps I would say, "You're being separated because you asked questions. We don't ask questions at Pfizer."

I heard the male Terminator at the podium say something about how important it was to show compassion. Crying together with the targeted employee, however, was not recommended.

After having gone through some mandatory catch-phrases such as "You should know that a generous separation kit has been created for all former Pharmacia employees losing their jobs due to the acquisition," we were shown the final step.

The final step was to "listen and allow time to react and ask questions." It was important to allow eye contact and to show that we were listening. If we didn’t feel compassionate, clearly we were supposed to pretend that we were.

In short, the day was a miniature course in emotional manipulation, with the objective of getting rid of people without causing a scene.

We were also instructed that company policy was not to provide any references, as if anyone could have forgotten the infamous memo on this topic. So, "Off you go, you've done a great job, but we're not going to tell anyone, because that would be unfair to others."

At that point, I thought the meeting was over but it wasn’t. Next we were going to learn how to handle the "difficult employees" — the ones who wouldn’t walk, docilely, through the slaughter chute:

The Very Angry Person

First we had to learn to deal with "The Very Angry Person," and I half-expected that they would bring in uniformed security personnel and show pictures of Taser guns on the big screen in front of us. Instead we got another lecture in psychology.

We were told that we should "acknowledge the employee's feelings," but that we could not "respond in kind." I guess that meant we shouldn't yell back at the distraught mother who now had no way of supporting her three children. We were told that the best response to the angry employee was to repeat the statements, describing the support the company would offer.

We were also warned that we couldn't expect to turn angry employees into docile ones, since "only proper counseling can do that." I couldn't help but wonder how counseling was going to feed those three kids. We were also supposed to be firm, saying, "I'm afraid we're past the point of looking at alternatives. The decision is made and it's final." If the situation got completely out of control, we were asked to leave the room and let HR or a consultant from the company that specialized in firing employees take over. We were also told to notify security in advance if we expected a "difficult situation."

The Emotional Employee

Then we had "The Emotional Employee." The best advice was apparently to remain calm and in control and to acknowledge the employee's feelings. But crying together with the fired employee was still not part of the response. If the employee went on crying for too long, a few minutes break was suggested.

They also gave us some great statements to use, such as, "I know this is a difficult situation, but I do believe you'll do better than you think." Obviously the Terminators who did the talking had no idea if anyone would do better than they thought, demonstrating again how manipulative the entire process was.

The Out-of-Control Reaction

We were told about the worst potential reaction: "The Out-of-Control Reaction." That reaction might indicate deeper problems and the need for professional help. They didn't say we should call in men in white coats, but I have to admit that my imagination had begun to really run wild by this point in the session. I was disappointed when we were simply advised to remain firm and unwavering.

Finally, we were given a "script" to use when firing an employee. It ended, "I know this is difficult news to bear. If I can be of assistance to you in any way, please come to me." Too bad they had just forbidden us to do the one thing that could really have assisted a terminated employee — give them a reference.

About the Author

Peter Rost | M.D.