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Firing People Is Not "Liberating" Them - Views Of An Outplacement Consultant

Being an outplacement consultant is rewarding because you see first-hand the benefits that come from professionally helping people get their careers and lives back on track.

Outplacement and being in career transition are serious subjects. We see ourselves as providing an important service to impacted employees by the organizations that do want to help them.

This leads me to talk about an article that I recently saw with the following headline:

A co-founder of Google’s moonshot factory doesn’t like to fire people, so he ‘liberates’ them instead

The article (published in Quartz by Dave Gershgorn) described a “new management theory” this way:

Sebastian Thrun, a co-founder of Google’s moonshot factory, has been testing a management theory inside his online education startup Udacity: 
If people aren’t happy, make them leave

“If you are unhappy, and you and I both recognize that’s the case, 

I never fire you. I liberate you.
Liberation is different from firing
” Thrun tells Quartz. “I tell people, look, you’re not engaged and able to work at your peak performance level and I know that too, and we tried to resolve this and failed. Why don’t you find yourself a new job, and when you’ve found this job, go to the company and announce your departure on your own terms.” (Thrun didn’t say how long they had to find a new job.)

He calls the idea Project Freedom and says it’s a method that spares an employee’s dignity while giving them time to find a better fit for their skills. But there are also benefits for the employer: Thrun says if companies hired and “liberated” more often, they could take more risks when hiring.

First, Sebastian Thrun is a really smart guy who has done some amazing things. I am not trying to throw shade on him because I have to respectfully challenge this “management theory” for several reasons.

Firing is not liberating when you look at it from the employee’s point of view.

While I will give Mr. Thrun the benefit of the doubt, I think that liberation is fuzzy semantics to make a tough decision look more pleasant (at least for the employer).

I looked up some online comments on this article and found other comments that were much more direct and to the point:

Project Freedom is unfortunately just a softer language version of the Darwinian GE forced ranking system where the goal was to jettison the bottom 10%. Telling these employees that they are “liberated” will not ease the pain, embarrassment, and insecurity that they may face.

Here is how Sebastian Thrun sees it:

Project Freedom is always the last resort, after all, other attempts to render an employee productive have failed. In Project Freedom, I sit down with the individual in a confidential meeting and assign him only a singular task: to find himself a new job.

Technically, I am firing him. But I don’t use the f-word
. After all, it’s not necessarily his fault that things aren’t working out. A work environment is comprised of many individuals, and fault almost always goes multiple ways. What matters is that things aren’t working out. And by keeping the act of liberation confidential, I allow the individual to save face. He announces his choice to departure at his own terms.

Project Freedom does serve as a harsh reminder that our performance is always evaluated and our professional circumstances can change for a variety of reasons – some not tied to performance. Sebastian Thrun states it this way:

“People come work with me and for me, and trust in me that I make the best use of their time. I’ve seen numerous occasions when it didn’t work, they’re unhappy, they feel micromanaged, and you can tell they’re not spending the time well,” Thrun said.

“It’s my moral obligation in that situation if it can’t be reversed and I can’t resolve it, to literally relieve this person of the burden of having to work for me and help them find a better home.”

As I wrote in a previous LinkedIn post, corporate divorces may be in the future of many. We all need to be prepared and ready. We also need to recognize that there are legitimacy and logic to what Sebastian Thrun is trying to do with Project Freedom at Udacity. His goal is to create a high-performance culture where he is trying to optimize his human capital to deliver big breakthroughs in technology and education. Who can fault him for this?

Workplaces like Udacity and many others are high demand/high reward environments. There will be employees who do not work out for a variety of reasons.

Whether you call it a liberation, termination, layoff, or any other term it will be disruptive for the individual. This is where outplacement and career transition support can help.