The end of the road

Denton Hartman

For myriad reasons, managers reach the end of the road with staff members. People move on to satisfy the need for a bigger challenge, a better location or a brighter opportunity. For some, the motivation is simply a change. People retire or health issues prevent them from work activities. Departures such as these are often bittersweet, but not overwhelmingly stressful. However, for most managers, the process of terminating an employee can be a major stressor.

Julie Tappero, author of West Sound Workforce, describes the stress of terminating an employee this way: “It feels like the executioner meting out the workplace death penalty and can be one of the most depressing responsibilities management has.” S. N. Behrman, a long-time contributor to The New Yorker, reminds us that, “At the end of every road you meet yourself,” and it is not always a jubilant reunion! In my experience, terminating an employee truly is a place where you must meet yourself.

In my career, there were times that my position required that I facilitate an employee termination. The catalyst for this action may have been an employee’s poor performance, a blatant rule or policy violation, attendance issues, insubordination, or just simply the wrong person for the job. No matter the reason, it was usually the company’s reason and not what the employee expected.

I learned through these “end of the road” experiences that every attempt should be made to assist the employee, including the use of progressive discipline before reaching the end. We should strive to act fairly following the separation, and never call the termination a “Reduction in Force.” Accurate and objective documentation is essential. The process leading to a termination for cause reminds me of the words of Christina Rossetti, a 17th-century English poet, “Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end.”

This end is a place where the opportunity to continue forward disappears. We have all been there. Like while traveling along peacefully we make a wrong turn, or we (reluctantly) follow our GPS. The moment the realization sets in that we must backtrack, or worse begin again, a sense of disappointment or defeat may overwhelm us. As managers, when we must begin again after a termination, we find ourselves “recalculating,” reflecting upon what we may have done differently.

It is true that employees bear responsibility for their own performance and workplace behavior. It is also true that the position of manager is the source of accountability for meeting company standards and reasonable expectations. When things are not working out for the employee or the company, someone must act. Termination is likely the most dreaded managerial responsibility.

According to the late Billy Graham, this inscription marks the gravestone of his helpmate of 54 years, Ruth Bell Graham: “End of construction. Thank you for your patience.” The inscription was inspired by a road sign Ruth saw and remembered. We have all seen that sign, but Ruth’s application of it to a life-work completed should give us all pause to reflect. The end of the road is a challenging place. But it is not all bad news.

A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Thomas Edison was fired because he wasn’t productive enough. Elvis Presley was fired by the manager of the Grand Ole Opry. And, Apple fired Steve Jobs … and then rehired him. For such as these, the end of the road inspired great accomplishment.

Managers must do their due diligence, but our future is always “under construction.”

Denton C. Hartman is an adjunct instructor at Hagerstown Community College.