NFL’s “Black Monday:” Tips on Communicating Firing Decisions

Posted by Kenneth N. Winkler on

Three NFL head coaches were terminated on “Black Monday” – the day following the end of the regular season.  The coaches were Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons) Rex Ryan (New York Jets), and Marc Trestman (Chicago Bears).

As an Atlanta resident and Falcons fan, I paid close attention to much of the public speculation over Mike Smith’s job security leading up to Black Monday.  While the 2013 and 2014 seasons were disappointing, Mike Smith was the most successful coach in the history of the Falcons.  He was well-liked by his players and fans and he appeared to have the respect of the team’s owner, Arthur Blank.

It was, therefore, no surprise that Mr. Blank’s press conference announcing Coach Smith’s termination was handled with class.  Mr. Blank complimented Coach Smith on his professional achievements and thanked Coach Smith for the contributions he made toward the team’s success during his tenure.  Moreover, Mr. Blank discussed his vison for the future and desire to hire the right coach without disparaging Coach Smith.

Mr. Blank’s press conference was refreshing and serves as a model of how organizations should communicate termination decisions. Too often organizations make public statements about a terminated employee via press releases and press conferences that are unnecessary and harmful to the employee’s professional reputation and character.

Certainly, a company should be careful about how it characterizes the terminated employee’s performance and skills.  If the company makes public statements about an employee that are false, they can constitute actionable defamation.  Furthermore, litigation often comes about when terminated employees feel they were disrespected or mistreated.  Being terminated is an emotional event, even for high ranking leaders such as coaches and CEO’s.  Companies can reduce the risk of litigation over terminations by simply being respectful towards terminated employees.  Some simple examples are responding timely to an employee’s requests for information on benefits, final paychecks, or other issues that may arise.

Terminations are necessary and will always be a difficult challenge for an organization.  As Mr. Blank stated in his press release, one of the most difficult decisions to make as a leader in any business is to determine whether the people in place can take the organization to the next level.  In this regard, Mr. Blank commented that in making this type of decision you constantly reflect on all of the components and you “go up and back thousands of times a night” before reaching a decision.

With proper consideration and planning, organizations can communicate termination decisions, even very difficult and highly public terminations, without unnecessarily harming the departing employee.  By being professional, the organization also helps its reputation and reduces the likelihood of litigation.