Ellen Pao resigned from her position as interim CEO at Reddit after a petition from the site’s users. Pao says she resigned because she couldn’t meet the goals the board had set out for her. When you have your users revolting en masse, it’s hard to meet growth goals. But, why did she have a revolt on her hand?
Redditors were upset because of the dismissal of popular Reddit Employer, Victoria Taylor. They responded with a petition that garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. They shut down forums. They were angry. And Pao couldn’t recover from this. Even though she and Reddit claim that the decision was mutual, there was no doubt that Pao couldn’t recover from this. It’s possible that if Pao knew how to do one thing better, she could still be the CEO. What is that one thing? How to fire.
Companies focus a lot of time and money on hiring. Hiring the right people is critical to a company’s success. But, firing is also incredibly important. How you handle someone’s last day is just as important–and in Victoria Taylor’s case more important–as their first day.
Here’s how Pao could have handled Taylor’s termination and maybe not ticked off the site’s members.
Vacuums must be filled.
Reddit didn’t make an immediate statement as to why Taylor was fired. The result was speculation went rampant and landed on an Ask Me Anything event with the Reverand Jesse Jackson that went horribly wrong. Even though Taylor had successfully managed numerous of these AMA events, it seemed that one failure resulted in a termination. People were understandably angry.
Instead of letting people draw their own conclusion, Reddit should have released a statement giving the exact reason for the termination. The things people think up on their own will always be worse than the truth. And if they aren’t worse than the truth, then maybe you should reconsider the termination.
Taylor’s role was disappearing, but Taylor didn’t need to disappear.
Reddit wanted to encourage celebrities to join the communities rather than Taylor handle them. Fine. But does that mean Taylor needed to go? She was a popular employee with the “clients.” (Don’t forget, your website’s users are just as much your clients as people who hand you cash directly. Without your users, your website is worthless.) Was a termination really necessary? Could Taylor have been transferred to a new role? Could it have been announced as a reward for good performance?
It’s easier to say, “This position is going so this person should go.” However, that’s not necessarily the best thing to do. People who are good in one role can often be good in another role. Consider if what you are doing is truly the best thing for the company. Pao certainly didn’t. Whatever Taylor was being paid, it wasn’t more than the money and good will lost due to her firing.
Attorney Lauren E. M. Russell points out that even after Reddit founder, Alexis Ohanian apologized, and Pao followed up by her own statement, people weren’t satisfied. She writes,
More specifically, the moderators who disrupted the site felt that the way in which Ms. Taylor was terminated was symptomatic of other problems at Reddit, including a lack of effective communication and a lack of respect and appreciation for the work that Redditors do, on a voluntary and uncompensated basis, to contribute to the success of the website. As a result, the statements exacerbated the conflict, rather than resolving it.
Apologizing isn’t just saying, “Oops! Sorry!” it’s about correcting the wrongs. If you’re going to fire someone, then not communicate the whys and then try to apologize in a clunky way, you’re not going to convince people that your communication problems have been solved.
Firing someone doesn’t fix anything if you don’t change the underlying problems. Sure, sometimes you have a bad employee who does horrible things and you get rid of that person and things get better. But, you also need to look at what happened for that person to become your employee, and what allowed them to stay for as long as they did? Now, by all accounts, Ms. Taylor was a fine employee, it was just her position that was going. But, how Pao handled this indicated a true communication breakdown.
What could Pao and Reddit have done differently?
Their biggest mistake was not recognizing how valuable Taylor was to the company. They should have either transferred her or worked with her to develop an exit plan which would make it appear that Taylor was leaving on her own accord to do something bigger and better. This would have been a long goodbye, and would have involved allowing Taylor to job hunt while still on the payroll, but it still would have been a better deal for the company.
If they absolutely, positively, had to terminate her, a prepared statement should have been released seconds after Taylor was told herself. This would have made it clear that it was the position that was going and that they had nothing but positive things to say.
They also could have waited a bit for things to calm down. Pao raised some hackles when Reddit implemented rule changes to try to make things more civilized. While I certainly applaud these efforts, the community didn’t take kindly to it. Letting the new structure sink in before making another substantial change could have helped.
Overall, consider how you fire. Your own job may depend on it.