The Right Way to Fire Someone

If you have the choice, firing an employee is best done face-to-face in a private setting. This allows you to set a serious but supportive tone and present everything the employee will need to know — including any relevant paperwork about health insurance, severance, or unemployment.

best way to fire an employee

The Right Way to Fire Someone

You’ve decided it’s time to let the low performer on your team go. You’ve covered your bases in terms of documentation, and you’ve coordinated with HR. But now you have to have the dreaded conversation. What’s the best way to deliver the news? Who should be in the room with you? What do you say and not say? And how do you tell the rest of the team?

What the Experts Say
“Firing is the single most difficult thing we ask leaders to do,” according to Dick Grote, a management consultant in Dallas, Texas, and author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals. “Even when the business justification is clear, you’re sitting down and telling someone that he’s no longer getting a paycheck and that when he wakes up in the morning, he has no place to go. That’s tough.” But firing is a necessary evil, says Jodi Glickman, author and founder of communication consulting firm Great on the Job. “As the manager, you have to bear in mind what’s right for the company.” You have to focus on the fact that “the firing makes good business sense and hopefully is in the best interest of the person and your team going forward.” While it will never be easy to deliver bad news, here are some tips on how to manage the process.

Don’t drag your feet
The prospect of firing someone you’ve worked with for years — particularly someone you know well and respect — is daunting, but you mustn’t let your personal agony delay the conversation, says Glickman. “When the bad outweighs the good and when the employee is causing more problems than he or she is solving, it’s time for that employee to go,” she says. Of course, firing should be the final step in a fair and transparent process that began long before the actual termination talk — and there should be a trail of paperwork to prove it. Even if the documentation process is cumbersome, stay focused. “Managers rarely regret acting too quickly on a termination, but they have regretted waiting too long,” says Grote. If you’re still having trouble mustering the courage to act, think about your team. After all, they’re “the ones who are picking up the slack and maybe working longer hours because the person [you need to fire] is not doing his job correctly.”

Make HR your ally
Before you schedule the conversation, Grote suggests double-checking your plans with HR. “You’re not asking for permission — you’re the boss; you make the decisions — but you’re asking if there’s any reason you shouldn’t go ahead with your plan to fire Louie on Tuesday morning,” he says. First, you want to ensure that an HR rep is able to attend the meeting, since it’s legally practical and more comfortable to have someone else in the room. Second, the HR department can offer “a fuller picture” of the employee’s extenuating circumstances. “In this litigious society, HR is your ally in filling in any blanks.” HR might tell you, for instance, that Louie’s pension vests on Wednesday, so firing him Tuesday might be viewed as suspect in court. Or HR might tell you that Louie’s wife starts cancer treatment on Monday afternoon, in which case firing him Tuesday could be seen as inhumane.

Keep it short
The words you use to terminate an employee should be simple and to-the-point. Don’t waffle. “Go somewhere private and then lead with the punch line,” says Glickman. She suggests you begin by saying, “I have some bad news for you. Today is your last day here.” Then state the reason for termination in one simple sentence. “Be transparent,” she says. “We’ve let you go because you didn’t meet your sales targets” or “You’ve not been a good cultural fit here.” It’s important to use the past tense because it “precludes arguments about second chances,” says Grote. “The plug has been pulled.” If the employee tries to argue or lashes out at you, try not to get caught up in responding. “It’s a natural human thing to want to say ‘I’m sorry,’” says Grote. But when it comes to firing a poor performer, he recommends couching your regret in terms where “personal responsibility lies squarely on the individual.” He suggests saying something like, “‘I’m sorry that the situation has gotten to this point.’”

Stay in the room
HR may be your ally, but you shouldn’t expect it to do your dirty work. While some experts contend that you needn’t say anything more or even remain in the room after the initial pronouncement, Grote vehemently disagrees. “Leadership demands compassion,” he says. “You were the agent of a terrible thing that has just happened in this person’s life. Don’t run away, and don’t force HR to pick up the pieces.” You should be prepared to “speak as needed and answer questions as they come up.” Before the meeting, you need to be well versed on practical matters — the details of the former employee’s severance agreement, for instance, and what happens to his benefits and unused vacation time. Of course, there will always be issues you hadn’t considered. If something comes up, Grote recommends saying, “Let me apologize, I hadn’t thought of that,” and then turn it over to HR. But make no mistake: “This is your baby.”

Knowing when it’s time to fire an employee

No doubt firing is one of the least desirable parts of your job description as a leader. This is someone you picked from a pool of applicants, brought into your business, trained, and spent time with. Letting them go can have ramifications for your business.

There are a lot of reasons you might need to fire an employee: maybe their productivity is noticeably and consistently down, maybe their behavior drains the morale of those around them, or you’re getting complaints from other employees or even clients.

Unless you’re firing for budgetary reasons, you should already have a record of an employee’s poor performance or behavioral issues and documented ways you’ve tried to work with them to improve. Remember, a talk about behavior or performance can be a chance for you to help them grow professionally. But if you were diligent in working with that employee and you don’t see improvement, or you’re met with disinterest, denial or defensiveness without any change in behavior after a few of these conversations, it’s probably time to let that person go.

What to consider before you fire your employee

Your emotions

It can be a big emotional burden to take on, despite the existence of the platitude, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit bad about what you’re doing, even if you know it’s the right decision for you and your company. It can be even harder to figure out how to fire someone you like genuinely.

So before you do the deed, bolster yourself. Remember: it will probably be an uncomfortable meeting, but no matter how emotional the business break-up is for you, you have to do your best to keep your emotions in check during the meeting. The last thing you want is to have the person you’re laying off have to comfort you because you’re so distraught that you have to let them go. That’s not fair to them and just adds insult to injury.

Legal considerations

However, if you are a more established company and have HR personnel or an outsourced partnership, it is a good idea to seek their advice on the approach to ensure firing doesn’t become a legal issue that will come back to haunt you.

You should certainly make sure you have all your aforementioned records on the employee’s performance and behavior in order so that you have a paper trail. This should include performance reviews, any warnings you may have delivered to them and any other coaching details. Before the meeting, you should also draw up a termination letter (reviewed by that aforementioned lawyer) to deliver to the employee once you’ve delivered the news.

Logistical details

You’ll also want to think out all the logistics ahead of time: How are you going to collect any company property in their possession, like keys or computers? How and when will you give them their last paycheck? What are you going to tell them when they ask why they’ve been fired? Especially if you don’t have a dedicated person who handles HR, you need to be ready to tackle all the issues.

And for after the fact, you’ll need to know how you’re going to handle any remaining emails their address receives and how to change any company passwords known to the employee. Make sure you have your plan in place ahead of the meeting so you don’t overlook anything.

What to say in a termination meeting

Your tone and demeanor should be professional: terminating an employee is a business decision – not an opportunity to unload grievances. The object is to remove the employee as quickly and efficiently as possible without stripping them of their dignity.

There’s no point sugar-coating it: let the employee know they’re being let go at the onset. If you’re firing the employee for cause, you may want to briefly cover the policy violation or infractions that led to their dismissal. If you’re relieving the employee of their duties “at-will” you’ll want to let them know that is the reason they’re being terminated.

The employee will likely have questions, and it’s a good idea to answer one or two. But don’t get into a lengthy discussion. Let them know the decision has been made and it’s not negotiable. The meeting is to inform them of the organization’s decision and provide them with the paperwork necessary to sever their employment.

Move on quickly to their rights under COBRA, providing them with the needed paperwork, and then move on to your property checklist. Conclude the meeting informing the employee that if they have any questions later, they’re free to contact you.

Sample conversation: Termination for cause

“John, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. We’ve provided ongoing warnings about getting to work on time and you were notified continued tardiness would lead to your dismissal. I’m providing you with your COBRA notification, please take a moment to read through it and ask any questions you may have, and then we’ll need to collect company property. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

“Jane, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. We’re severing your employment at-will. I’m providing you with your COBRA notification, please take a moment to read through it and ask any questions you may have, and then we’ll need to collect company property. If you have any questions later, feel free to contact me.”


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