Advice to New Managers: Don't Joke About Firing People

One of the most narrow pieces of feedback I give to people being promoted to manager is simple - don’t joke about firing people. When I deliver this feedback people will often respond with some form of befuddlement: “I wasn’t planning to”, “Ummm….OK”, “Obviously”. However, this feedback is driven by knowledge of mistakes made by a number of new managers.

When people get promoted to manager their former peers become direct reports. It’s awkward. They try to break the tension with self deprecation and poking fun at the newfound responsibility. That “haha I’m the bureaucrat now what a joke this is” attitude carries through each new day and eventually some situation arises where a report makes some sort of gaffe. They spill their coffee. They accidentally let a door close in your face. Their computer runs out of battery in a meeting. And then it happens: “that’s it, pack your things and go, you’re out of here buddy”. Or some other joke about their termination from the company.

You might think it’s innocuous, but it’s not. The second you became their manager you forfeited the right to joke around in any capacity about their employment at the company. Even though you still feel like a pal joking around, even though the fact that you’d make the joke at all is a testament to your discomfort with having to make firing decisions, it’s not something you can ever joke about. People don’t find it funny because it’s not funny. The ability to terminate someone’s employment is a big deal. Treat it that way, always.

Furthermore, this sort of break-the-awkwardness mistake can be made at other, even more inappropriate times. Anything causing discomfort in the air - from COVID-19 to police brutality and beyond - is an opportunity for a manager to try and break the discomfort where it’s not appropriate. The advice is simple: don’t kid about serious things. Even if you think the spirit of the comment is clearly in support of your team or well meaning. Don’t do it.