How I Fired My Niece and Lived to Tell the Tale

Sometimes the two words “family” and “business” simply should not go together

Niece
(Image: iStock.com/Steve Debenport)

Sometimes, the two words “family” and “business” simply should not go together.

My only sister, Dr. Debra Nixon, has always maintained that her daughter, my niece, is “my child”—that she reminds her of me from her personality, to her drive, and her presence.

And that’s why firing her should have been extremely difficult, but it wasn’t.

Last summer my niece, we’ll call her “Spunky,” was deciding on her next professional move, at 26 and as a relatively recent college graduate with about three years of “real work” experience under her belt. “What do you think I should do?” she asked me one night over dinner. The conversation continued after dinner and on into laser tag. Before I knew it, I was inviting her to work with me at Kabooyow!, my digital marketing company.

Now, I’ve run my own company for 25 years, and over those two and a half decades, I’ve hired and fired my fair share of family members—yet somehow, this was one of my more enjoyable experiences.

Wait, I know what you’re thinking…but hold on for a second. Let me explain.

Working with someone who was so eager to succeed and learn was energizing. She picked up technical terms in a snap. She text-reported daily on small successes, like cutting and pasting code on a website.  She was fascinated by how much she didn’t know about marketing online. In many ways, she was my dream hire; passionate, perky, and promising.

But there was something amiss with Spunky. Like most millennials I know, she stayed up into the wee hours of the night, arising around noon. Her follow-through skills left much to be desired. Yet, when I’d point this out, I was almost always met with a big ol’ excuse, which—by the way—always meant World War III because, well, my excuse-accepting skills leave much to be desired.  Onward and upward we both said, after our fifth reset.

Then, one day as I was reviewing her work, it hit me—she was never going to truly learn the consequences of not following through, as long as she was working for me. She was never going to feel the financial fallout, unless the impact of her errors directly impacted her company, her ability to earn income, and her reputation.

And in that single moment while having this epiphany, I made the call I now affectionately refer to as “the call of a thousand tears.” Seven months into what we thought was going to be a blissful and bountiful union, Spunky and I parted ways—as employee and employer.

Later that evening, when the tears had dried and we’d both had some time to reflect on both the lessons and blessings, we decided that it had all been for the best—no harm, no foul. We’d remain auntie and niece, of course. We’d even continue as mentor and mentee, with a newfound love and respect not only for each other, but also for what it takes to build a great company and relationship.

Today, Spunky is a thriving millennial success, lifestyle coach, and artist who, for the first time in her life, is running her own company and finding her voice doing a weekly YouTube show for millennials.  She’s making money, loving life, and dreaming bigger than ever.  The other day she called out of the blue and said, “I love you more than you’ll ever know…and I thank you for firing me.”

Fran Harris is a business explosion expert, CEO of a digital marketing agency, and founder of Black Business University, the world’s first online course marketplace for black entrepreneurs, CEOs and companies, featuring hundreds of on-demand courses to help you grow your business.