Managing the Difficult Task of Firing an Employee

A friend in human resources recently shared with me that the toughest part of her new job is when she has to fire/let go of an employee. She can handle long-hours, neurotic personalities, and even an angry or belittling comment, but being the “bad guy” and bearer of bad-news feels jarringly wrong. Unfortunately, this is an integral part of her job, so she reluctantly does what needs to be done. But she doesn’t enjoy it and wishes there were someone else, or another way, to do it.

Human resource professionals primarily focus on the soft-side of business. They help train people to be the best they can be, offer competitive pay and benefits packages, and create an upbeat workplace spirit and culture. Their goals are to empower and encourage employees, focusing on the “human capital” of the business.

So what happens when the job also includes the hardest-side of business: informing employees that they are no longer needed or welcome?

A few tips and ways of re-framing the situation will help ease the blow and facilitate a better conversation.

1.    Set an appropriate time and place – Consider where you and s/he will be most comfortable. Is it better in your office? Theirs? A conference room? Different personalities may require different spaces. And no matter what, be sure to respect privacy. Don’t have the conversation on-the-fly or in any area where it may be overheard.

2.    Do your homework – Make sure you’ve reviewed all laws and considered all details of the termination, so that it should go smoothly and you are ready with all of the information on-the-spot.

3.    Keep it short – Dragging out bad news is never a good idea. The conversation should be brief, with minimal (if any) room for questions or comments, in the moment. Feedback and exit-surveys can usually wait until later. The initial letting-go conversation is best left as-is, without other dialogue, topics, or questions to distract from the main message.

True story: a friend was being terminated, but the conversation was so muddled, that she wasn’t sure if she was being asked to leave or being promoted! This made for a very awkward few hours afterwards, until she decided to ask for clarification. Make sure you are concise and deliver the message clearly!

4.    Be specific about the terms – Make sure you have at-the-ready all of the details you need to cover. Termination may include: severance, immediacy of termination (how soon are the expected to leave), benefits expiration timeline, and unused vacation time.

5.    Remember the “Why” – Presumably you know why this person has to leave, and you agree that this is the best strategic decision. If so, then you can relate to the conversation as an important part of the process of growing and improving the company. In other words, from the company perspective, this is a step forward. You obviously don’t mention this to the person you are firing, but the conversation will go a lot smoother if you have this in mind.

6.    Avoid long explanations – Assuming this is a one-way conversation and not a dialogue, there isn’t real need to belabor justifying your decision. Keep the reasons concise and to-the-point. You’re not looking for drawn-out discussion or promises of change – you just need to get your message heard. Too much explaining can give a false-impression that you’re unsure of this decision. If that were true, then a discussion should be had, prior to letting the person go.

7.    Do not apologize – Unless you truly are sorry for something specific about the terms of letting the person go (short notice, no prior indications, or similar), an apology followed by bad news is simply something we are saying to make ourselves feel better. But it is belittling and of no real comfort to the person receiving the message.

8.    Offer an exit-survey – One of the best ways of parting is to offer a respectful opportunity for someone to voice his/her feedback. Sometimes the feedback is very insightful. And other times, it will have created a dynamic where the person leaving feels s/he at least had his/her final say. This can be a small measure to reduce the likelihood of dragging out the termination with reactive lawsuits, for example.

Kira Nurieli is a certified mediator, conflict coach, workshop facilitator and consultant. She helps clients create breakthroughs in their workplace, classroom, family, and community dynamics.

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