The prospect of firing someone you’ve worked with for years can be daunting, but you have decided that it is the last step in what was a fair and transparent process where all other options failed.  You are left with the best choice to elevate your team’s needs over any one individual.

How do you have the termination talk?  Here are some steps to consider: 

1. Check with Human Resources.  Before you schedule the conversation, Management Consultant Dick Grote suggests sharing your plans with human resources to see if there are any additional considerations.  They can offer a fuller picture of the employee’s extenuating circumstances.  Maybe their pension vests on Wednesday, so firing on Tuesday can be suspect, or you find out that their wife is starting cancer treatments, so firing on the same day can especially sting.  HR should tell you if you have all the proper documentation and if there are other things you need to do to go about the process fairly and professionally.  They can answer any questions you might have.  Since you know the situation best, if you think it would be helpful for an HR rep to attend the meeting to help with questions or unusual reactions, you can make that call, but it should be done in the spirit of support and not a show of force.

2. Don’t delay.  This is one of the hardest things you might have to do as a manager, but you must not let your agony delay the conversation.  Prolonging their employment when they do not gel properly with the core values and culture is unfair to them and can be very expensive and damaging to the company.  When you choose not to fire someone, it ruins the integrity of the organization.  “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, which may be picking up that extra slack and working longer hours to cover the poor performance.  Once the decision has been made to pull the plug, do not wallow in the misguided hope that somehow things may still work out. They hardly do. Grote says, “Remember: It’s not the people you fire who make your life miserable. It’s the ones you don’t.”

3. Choose your timing.  Doing it early in the day and week may encourage them to find another job and reduce the chances that they will spend the weekend moping in a black hole.  Choosing Friday after­noon, on the other hand, often creates the minimum amount of disruption to the rest of the staff.    Whatever you decide, make it logical and compassionate for those involved.

4. Do it in person.  It should come from the manager, a familiar face who had previous conversations about the potential ramifications if things did not change so there is no surprise.  It should go without saying, but do not send an email or text.  If the person is in a different city or working remotely and cannot do it in person, a video call can suffice.

5. Be clear and concise. The words you use to terminate a team member should be simple and to the point.  There is no reason to sugarcoat a termination; take the rip-the-band-aid off approach by skipping the excessive small talk and leading with the headline.  Consultant Jodi Glickman suggests beginning by saying, “I have some bad news.  Today is your last day here.” Then be transparent and state the reason for termination in one or two simple sentences.  “We’ve let you go because you didn’t meet your sales targets” or “You’ve not been a good cultural fit, e.g., missing deadlines in a fast-moving culture.” Then, tell them directly they are terminated.  It’s essential to use the past tense because it “precludes arguments about second chances,” says Grote. “The plug has been pulled.”  You can also say, “Last month’s report indicated that your department still has the lowest quality index. We have decided that a change must be made, and as of today, your employment has been terminated.”  It is important not to waffle or be ambiguous because being clear is kind.  While both examples point to termination happening immediately, I think it is always helpful to give the person enough notice to transition.

6. Be compassionate.  When you have decided the right thing to do is dismiss a team member, you want to make the dreaded process go as smoothly as possible, both for you and the person you are letting go.  

Dick Grote says, “Even when the business justification is clear, you’re sitting down and telling someone that [they] are no longer getting a paycheck and that when [they] wake up in the morning, [they] have no place to go. That’s tough.”  Very few people are eager to put themselves in situations of discomfort as keeping somebody accountable does not feel good, but it is an eventual gift.  If you feel guilty, you should know that you are keeping them from another job where they can be happier and thrive.  Thinking about how uncomfortable you are in having the conversation is selfish, you must keep in mind what’s best for the company, the teammates moving forward, and the ones being terminated.

Be sure to have the conversation in a humane and dignified way by doing it behind closed doors.   It is essential always to be respectful and compassionate not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it helps with morale.  John Stieger, CMO of Wilke Global “Anyone with empathy can at least understand how losing a job will impact a spouse, children, and others who are blameless,” he says.  How you treat people on their way out the door does not go unnoticed by the rest of the organization.”  When terminations are well justified and professionally executed, the rest of the workgroup realizes that this is an excellent place to work.   

7. Stay in the room and be prepared to answer questions.  While some experts contend that you do not need to 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 or allow HR to handle questions relating to the last day of work, the last paycheck, the details of the severance agreement, the process of collecting unemployment benefits and health insurance, and what happens to their benefits and unused vacation time.  Of course, there may be issues you and HR have not considered.  In that case, you can let them know that you will get back to them shortly once you have the answer.  They should know the next steps.

8. Be prepared for emotion but keep yours in check.  Some people take the news in stride, while others might go through various emotions such as shock, grief, and anger.  Be prepared to listen and support in the best way you can.

9. Offer additional support if you would like.  If you genuinely believe the person has talent that could be useful elsewhere and are being let go for non-ethical or performance issues, offer to help with their transition so it is as seamless as possible.  Can you give them a long lead time to find a new job?  Can you assign them a Career/Transition Coach to support their next steps of polishing their resume and getting clarity on their next position?  Would you be willing to serve as a reference or write a testimonial?  How about making a LinkedIn introduction to a team where you think they would be valued?  Can you reassure them that the lines of communication will be open and that they can contact you for support?

10. Conduct an exit interview.  Exit interviews are a way for employees to be heard and state their case for why they are leaving.  They can offer valuable feedback on improvements since they may not hold back with their candid remarks, and you can use that information to plug any holes for improvement.  When possible, you should share their contributions and how they positively impacted the organization to feel proud of the time they spent.  Not all firings will be as amicable, but no need to burn bridges, ending on a high note is always the way to go.  Be sure to thank the person for their service and wish them well.

11. Talk to your team & focus on the future.  Gathering the colleagues affected by the termination to address the matter and offer a straightforward message, no need to reveal the reasons behind the decision due to confidentiality, but if it is probable that your team already knows.  The firing likely presents short-term challenges for your team so ensure them how it will be much better in the long run.  Share your strategy on managing the workload while you look for a replacement and are open to their suggestions to minimize the impact on them and the business.   

Deciding to fire is never an easy option but you should not delay just because it is uncomfortable for you.  That would be selfish and unfair to the person who is not a right fit because you keep them from moving on to better things.  It is also not fair to the other team members who may be overworking to compensate or to the organization if the business needs are being overlooked.  There is a way to fire with compassion, choose it and you will sleep better.

Quote of the day: “The day that firing becomes easy is the day to fire yourself.” -Tom Peters

Q:  What’s your best tip for successfully firing somebody with compassion?  Comment and share below; we would love to hear from you!

As a Leadership Coach, I partner with leaders to think through compassionate plans to dismiss their employees when they must, contact me to learn more.

Using compassion in saying goodbye