This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms.
The most unpleasant task of my editing career has been firing staff members.
Whether you fire someone for performance or misconduct or because you have to reduce the size of the staff, you are disrupting the person’s career and life in ways you and they can’t foresee. You are delivering a blow to the ego as well as to the family finances. It can be devastating to the journalist you fire and gut-wrenching for the editor who makes the decision and delivers the news.
No advice I can deliver changes any of that. So one of the most important pieces of advice I can give is this: If you can’t handle that difficult task, don’t take on a top editing job. It’s a great job that includes a lot of exciting and rewarding work. But it also invariably includes this task, even in good times, and you need to be able to handle it.
Three of your most crucial jobs as a Digital First editor are to ensure the best possible coverage of community news, life and issues; to lead ethical and accurate news coverage; and to lead your newsroom’s transformation to Digital First processes and culture. It’s also important to help journalists grow and prosper and have successful careers. But if a journalist’s performance, ethics or behavior interferes with those three crucial jobs, even after you’ve discussed the person’s need to change, you must have the resolve to disrupt that person’s career rather than let him harm your newsroom’s performance and progress.
You also are a key leader of your company, sharing responsibility with other executives for the success of the business. If the company’s revenues can’t sustain the newsroom at its current size, you will have to carry out staff reductions.
For the purposes of this blog post, I use the term fire. In the case of staff reductions, that’s probably not entirely accurate because it carries a perception of fault. But it feels like being fired and the departing employee will use that term to family and friends, so I’ll use that word rather than euphemisms that don’t really soften the blow anyway.
The circumstances of the firing dictate some of how you should handle it. I can think of three primary types of situations where an editor would have to fire a journalist:
- Serious misconduct. (I have never had to fire someone on my staff for misconduct, though I have been involved in discussions about firing journalists for misconduct.)
- Poor performance. (I fired two journalists for performance.)
- Staff reductions. (I had to cut 14 staff positions.)
I’ll address each of these circumstances separately, but four steps are essential in virtually every situation where you would fire a staff member:
Discuss the decision with your publisher
In the case of staff cuts, the directive to cut the staff will probably come from the publisher, whether the decision is made at the local level or a companywide or regional cut.
In the other two cases, you should discuss with the publisher to make sure that you both agree that the misconduct or performance merits dismissal, or whether a suspension or a discussion about the need to improve performance would be more appropriate.
The publisher will know how similar situations have been handled in other departments and may have valid concerns for legal reasons or simple fairness about handling your situation similarly. If the publisher has been in place longer than you, she also will know how similar situations have been handled in the newsroom. That’s not to say you couldn’t decide to handle this situation differently, but you want to know about precedents. And the publisher’s desire for consistency might be a valid reason to override (or at least delay) your decision to fire someone.
If you’re firing someone who’s popular in the community, the publisher will also take some of the heat from the public. Even though the publisher probably should not explain or defend the firing, you want him to be fully informed about the reasons, either agreeing with the decision or understanding it and respecting and supporting your right to make the call.
Confer with other editors
Every editor needs a sounding board when making a decision as important as firing a staff member. Except in the smallest newsrooms, you often have a city editor, news editor, managing editor or other mid-level editor to discuss the situation with before making a decision (it might be one of the mid-level editors who brought the unacceptable performance or behavior to your attention).
At Digital First, you also can discuss your options with your cluster and regional editors, with Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady and/or with me. We might be able to tell you how another newsroom handled a similar situation. We might affirm your decision and give you more confidence as you carry it out. We might present an option short of firing that you hadn’t considered. We might be able to counsel you in how to tell the person of your decision. Sometimes it just helps to talk to someone else who will affirm your decision or provide a different perspective.
If you aren’t a Digital First editor, you might have other editors in your company you could consult with. Or you could consult with a trusted friend in another company (in that case, you might need to protect the employee’s privacy without using names or some of the details of the situation). I would be willing to be a sounding board.
Confer with human resources
You should always involve your HR department early in any decision to fire staff members. HR can fill you in on any employment laws, company policies or union contracts that might govern the termination process. HR will take care of details such as benefits and severance and cutting off building access. If the situation involves substance abuse or mental health, HR can tell you whether the situation should result in dismissal or an opportunity to seek treatment.
HR will want to either counsel you on the conversation when you dismiss the employee or will want to join you for that conversation.
Hopefully, you will have minimal experience with firing employees. Even in the smallest companies, HR will have more experience. Their policies and procedures may feel at times like a hassle, but they prevent small and huge problems and you should involve HR as soon as you start considering dismissal of a staff member.
Address digital security
When you fire someone, you need to protect the security of your computer systems and social media accounts. Discuss the dismissal — either in advance or immediately afterward — with the appropriate people involved in your computer systems and with your social media account administrators.
Update: An editor who learned the hard way adds in a private message: Be sure to collect any company equipment such as laptop computer, camera, phone or tablet from an employee you are firing.
Some offenses are so serious they might not warrant a second chance. Some of these may be breaches of journalism ethics such as fabrication or plagiarism. Some may have no relation to journalism but be grounds for firing of any employee: physical assaults or threats to co-workers, drinking on the job, theft.
In almost all cases, serious misconduct requires investigation. You might suspend the employee pending an investigation. In a case of journalistic misconduct, the investigation might take a while as you use plagiarism-detection software to check previous stories to determine whether an offense was isolated or as you try to track down sources in previous stories if you suspect fabrication.
Step one in the investigation should be a frank conversation with the employee, explaining the suspicion and the possible consequences, including termination, for this offense. For instance, if you suspect plagiarism, you would show the similar or identical passages in the person’s work and in the earlier work from another source and ask for an explanation. The person might admit stealing the passage or might claim innocence or admit to sloppiness (which is a guilty plea, not an excuse).
You need to tell the journalist that you will investigate and that he will be suspended during the investigation, with no access to company systems. You say that you will need to investigate all of his previous stories, seeking possible instances of plagiarism and seeking to authenticate sources cited. (Plagiarism and fabrication often go together, so if you suspect either, you should investigate for both.)
Details of the investigation and conversation will vary by the nature of the offense. HR will provide guidance in how to deal with different types of serious misconduct.
Your investigation should be thorough enough that you are quite certain the employee took the offending action. But carefully examine and consider any evidence the employee might offer of innocence. Just as courts sometimes wrongfully convict defendants of crimes, you might have rushed to judgment on an allegation of employee misconduct. If the evidence of innocence is compelling, you’d rather stall the termination process for further investigation than end up losing a lawsuit (and losing a good journalist who was falsely accused).
Firing for poor performance
A dismissal for poor performance generally should not come as a surprise. If a journalist is not meeting your standards, you should have a serious conversation about her performance as well as documented conversations. By documented this means written (or email) summaries of all performance related to discussions have been delivered to the employee. Explain what your expectations are and how the journalist is not meeting them and what the journalist needs to do to meet the expectations. (I addressed these conversations in an earlier blog post.)
Reducing the staff
This is the toughest job an editor has and a task that is all too common in journalism today. Don’t take a top editing position unless you can carry out this difficult job.
Staff reductions can be influenced by a variety of factors — local and national corporate situations, union contracts, company revenues and personnel rules and federal and state laws. In these situations, you work closely with the publisher and HR to determine how and when to handle the cuts.
Journalists are smart. They are going to suspect – or even know – that cuts are coming before you can finish planning the cuts. When we had to cut staff in Cedar Rapids in 2009, we had been transparent in discussing with staff for a few months the reorganization we were planning. I discussed aspects of the plan in individual, small group and staff meetings. We interviewed people for jobs that would be part of the new organization.
It wasn’t until a couple weeks before we made the cuts that I learned for sure that I would not be able to avoid a staff reduction in the newsroom. Of course at that point, I could not be as transparent as I’d prefer to be. But I was careful not to BS anyone with false assurances. Credibility with the remaining staff is essential and they will learn about lies you tell.
If someone asked anything up until a few days before we informed staff members of the cuts, I could honestly say we were still working out details of the organization. It became more awkward once everything was determined and HR was working up the paperwork and coordinating the various departments who would be telling employees the same day that they would be losing jobs. I could say something honest but vague like, “I hope everyone knows soon about their futures.”
You have to be careful not to tell anyone early that they’re losing their job, to provide false reassurance or to reassure people who won’t be losing their jobs (you do that and you can be sure others will be in your office soon, asking for reassurance). As uncomfortable as the wait is, people deserve to get the full picture all at once and that takes some preparation.
Breaking the difficult news
Have the conversations in a setting with some privacy. If you have an office off the newsroom with windows, don’t tell people this news there, with the whole newsroom watching. If you’re telling people about a staff reduction, the newsroom will quickly catch on what’s happening, and they’ll know what it means when someone is summoned to a conference room or office on a different floor or the other end of the building. But they deserve some privacy if they cry or lose their temper. They deserve an opportunity to compose themselves and be alone a few minutes before facing curious colleagues.
The day you tell people about staff cuts or even the day you fire a single staff member for performance or behavior is going to be difficult. Don’t rely on your memory to cover all your talking points, especially if you’ll be meeting again and again in repeated meetings with multiple staff members. Bring notes with the key points. You might even write out a script (but don’t read it; just have it handy for reference). The key points will be the same, though details might vary with the individual.
I don’t think you need to blurt out immediately that someone is fired, but you do need to get to the point quickly. When I cut the staff in Cedar Rapids, my first sentence started with the tough economic conditions forcing tough decisions but by the end of that sentence, I told the individual across the table from me that he was losing his job. They know it’s coming; don’t make them wait. And don’t belabor the reasons.
People will react emotionally to the news that they’re being fired. Have a box of tissues handy. Give people time to compose themselves. Some will be angry. Don’t argue. They’re entitled to think you screwed them. As long as they don’t become threatening, anger is a reasonable response.
I hope you never need this advice, but …
I am optimistic that Digital First Media — and the news business in general — will succeed in finding new revenue sources and growing our business, so that eventually newsrooms will be growing rather than cutting. And I hope your newsroom will perform and behave well enough that you don’t have to fire anyone for cause.
Being an editor is a great job most days. I don’t think I’ve loved any job more. But it’s an unavoidable fact about leading a newsroom: If you hold this job for long, you’re eventually going to have to tell someone it’s time to go. If you aren’t tough enough to handle that unpleasant job, you aren’t the right person for this great job.
Want to contribute a guest post?
If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. Sue Burzynski Bullard provided such a post on organizational tools. Nancy March wrote about balancing work and personal life. Dan Rowinski wrote about mobile opportunities.
I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.
Jill Geisler’s Firing: For People Who Hate the Subject
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). The posts probably will run every few days for the next few weeks. What other topics should I cover?
- Developing new leaders