Updated February 2023
I was in college when I first had to let someone go. I was the ranking supervisor of the student team that ran the student union, and after several warnings by his direct supervisor, this employee was referred to me for not meeting the expectations laid out in his work plan and missing a couple of shifts. My job was to fire him. I was 20.
Luckily, my Dad was an experienced business person and had fired a few people in his day. He talked to me about firing someone the way I'd want to be fired and we role played that a bit. He also pointed out that the dude wasn't going to be surprised since he'd been on a long-term probation, and that as part of his referral to me he had been advised to consider finding another position on campus. I knew Dad was right, but it didn't make me feel better.
I steeled myself for the meeting. I wrote out a few talking points so I could both comply with state employment law and with my Dad's guidance. It went better than I thought, but it was still horrible. And even though I've had to let a few people go since, it isn't easier. But I do at least have confidence that I'm being decent when I do it, and and maybe that's the best we can aim for.
Stop with the low-key letting go
Why am I telling you this? Because a few people in my network recently have been "low-key fired" from freelance engagements. You may have been there, too. You work a project, get it to certain point and then the client just disappears. If you're lucky, they make up some lame excuse to pay you off -- one of the best I've heard at end of year was, "We don't process invoices in December and we don't want you to have to wait so long to bill. Can you invoice us for what you've done so far and we'll pick up next year?" That's genius -- because you think they're being cool even as they are throwing you off the cliff. P.S. They never did pick the project back up.
If they don't do that, at some point you just decide to invoice for work done to date (that's part of your standard contract, right?) and at least get paid for the work you put in thus far.
Compensation's nice, but...
Just because someone decides to pay you (thanks!) doesn't make the ghosting OK. Sure, it takes some of the sting out of the whole sitch, but why not tell the truth, too?
We're all adults here. We know sometimes things just don't work out. Maybe the person you're supposed to write a speech for doesn't really dig you. That's cool -- and reason enough to bail on that kind of gig. Perhaps the project scope changes and there's an internal person who has a stronger skill set in the new focus area than you do. No problem. Or maybe there's just a feeling that you aren't what the client wants, even though they thought they did. This is real life. It hurts a bit, but it's not unrecoverable.
When you don't actually fire your agency or freelancer
When you low-key fire or just plain neglect a contractor or agency, when you just let things go, there's a ripple effect you might not have considered:
Impacts on Us
- We can't get better because we don't know where we needed to improve
- We keep time available in our work plan in case the project comes back, which means we may not take on other work so we can be available to you
- We can't make our own good head count decisions.
Impacts on You
- We lose confidence and trust in you and your brand, and may decide not to work with you when an appropriate project comes along
- We might tell others in our professional network to be careful working with you
A better way
Stuff like this happens all the time. What doesn't have to happen is the inhumane way it unfolds. The next time it's not working out, figure out what you can/have to pay for work done to date and then tell the truth about why you're killing the deal. Just do it.
And if the ghosting is being done unto you? Don't grovel. Don't demand an explanation. If somebody's ignoring you, it's unlikely they're going to take you back or suddenly develop the guts to tell you the truth. Ask for what you're owed and ramp up your biz dev efforts. The last time a client ghosted me, I invoked my contract and got paid for the work accepted. I reached out to a few contacts and let them know I had some unexpected capacity open up. Before too long, I had a new coaching client and an RFP for a big project.