I’m one of the lucky ones in radio.
I’ve never been fired.
OK, it’s true – in my entire professional career (aside from Jacobs Media), I’ve only worked for three employers:
Michigan State University
Frank N. Magid Associates
And in each case, the decision to walk out the door was mine. That makes me something of a rarity in the radio business.
Now that said, I’ve been fired dozens of times as a consultant. And even with a healthy portfolio of other clients, the act of being let go/not renewed/terminated is always a painful one. There’s no getting around it. It hurts. It’s rejection. You feel like in some way you’ve failed.
But even on those baddest of bad days, how it’s executed, handled, and finessed by the boss can make all the difference in the world. Almost a decade ago when the economy cratered, radio companies were under duress. For many, the only choice was layoffs and radical expense cutbacks. As you can imagine, outside consultants were in the crosshairs.
So on a tough fall day, David Field personally picked up the phone to give me some bad news. He was apologetic, but blunt and direct about how the financial realities had changed, and how our company would be affected. It wasn’t a total wipeout, but it was a severe “haircut.” It was a tough call, but a fair one. And he handled it with grace and class.
Contrast that with a cancellation that occurred later that same month. When I called the GM to find out about our status for the coming year, his receptionist tersely gave me the bad news. Her boss was not even available for a conversation. We had worked successfully for that client for more than a decade, but the way we were shown the door was hurtful and disrespectful. We have not spoken since.
So while getting canned, axed, downsized, or laid off is never pleasant, the boss can make a huge difference in how it all goes down. And make no mistake about it – the rest of the staff is paying attention. How these exits play speak volumes about the true culture of an organization.
It is easy to welcome in a new employee with enthusiasm and optimism. It is considerably more difficult to let them go. While I was never fired from a job, I have had to sadly say goodbye to a handful of employees over our 33 year history. It’s always painful, and I have tried to be fair, truthful, and sympathetic.
And that’s why James Comey’s departure from the FBI earlier this week caught my attention – and if you’re the boss or a manager with direct reports – it should be on your radar screen as well.
How you feel about Comey – and emotions are all over the spectrum – might depend on your political allegiances. He has been a controversial figure among the leaders of both parties, spurring emotion and frustration.
But at the end of the day, the boss has the right to fire any employee. That’s a given when you go to work for someone else. But when these stressful moments are not handled properly or with dignity, you have to start thinking about who’s in the corner office.
In Comey’s case, reports indicate he was addressing a group of FBI agents when the news of his termination flashed across a TV screen. Now we know there are times when a dismissal is time-sensitive and needs to take place quickly. But the Comey firing crosses a line. It was clearly done with a sense of haste and even anger.
I worked for a guy once who used to say, “What this station needs is a good public hanging.” His point was that in a lazy operation where employees aren’t motivated or doing their best, a high-profile firing can be beneficial. Rarely have I seen that strategy pay off.
In business, there are HR departments designed to make these transitions go as smoothly as possible. It doesn’t always work out that way, but most companies go to great lengths to make their exit strategies as uneventful as possible, hoping to avoid a backlash in the hallways or on social media. A well-handled orderly transition takes work, preparation, empathy, and consideration. On the other hand, making a statement with a firing only serves to instill the rest of the organization with fear, paranoia, insecurity, and even loathing.
It is ironic that shows like “Celebrity Apprentice” often make light of dismissals. Dramatic firings are great for ratings, they generate buzz, and light up social media. But in real life – whether it’s the government or your radio company – there’s nothing entertaining about firing someone.
Comey’s a big boy. He was well-paid as the FBI Director, and reportedly is a millionaire many times over. But that has nothing to with how a key executive is treated during a stressful transition as he’s shown the door. A successful changing of the guard makes a statement about an organization’s preparation – its ability to anticipate fallout and other consequences from a tumultuous decision. It’s a time when you learn a lot about who and what you’re dealing with.
Sadly, in the radio business, layoffs will no doubt continue, especially as the industry’s two biggest companies continue their uphill fight against massive debt. And the coming wave of consolidation will no doubt signal more pruning, layoffs, downsizing, and “efficiencies.” It’s inevitable, it’s part of business, and it comes as no surprise to anyone in radio. How it’s prepared, rolled out, and executed speaks volume about a company and how it values its people.
You would think that over time, successful executives learn the smartest, most empathetic ways in which to handle these difficult moments. Apparently, even with all that practice on “Celebrity Apprentice” and years in the business world, little has been learned about the art and craft of letting people go.
Tuesday’s Comey’s firing has only served to inflame Washington, with reverberations being felt throughout the country. A key to these transitions is getting the machine back in working condition, moving it forward even during a bumpy time. That’s not how it’s working out.
It’s tough enough getting canned. Doing it in a demeaning, disrespectful, and humiliating way isn’t just insensitive.
It’s bad business.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.