There’s no easy way to let someone go—it’s a difficult conversation that no one actually wants to have—but at some point or another, every manager, director, and practice owner will have to figure out what to say when firing an employee. It’s an inevitable part of running a business. No matter how exceptional your hiring practices are, not every candidate you bring on board is going to end up being a perfect fit. Unfortunately, there’s no script for terminating an employee. But there are things that you can do to make a bad situation better for everyone involved—especially the person you’re dismissing. Here’s how to fire an employee in a way that allows you both to move on with as little drama as possible:
1. Follow the process.
According to Ron Ashkenas, author of this Forbes article, letting an employee go should be “the last step in a careful, thoughtful, fair, and transparent process that started long before the actual firing.” If you’re terminating an employee because of poor performance, you should have a well-documented paper trail that includes any performance-related notes, discussions, coaching efforts, training processes, and specific improvement plans. In other words, he believes—and we couldn’t agree more—that firing someone shouldn’t come as a surprise to the person being let go.
Give employees every chance to succeed.
In this Inc. article, Jeff Haden explains that this degree of thorough “documentation not only protects your business, [but] also helps ensure the employee was given every chance to succeed.” Don’t have a supporting documentation trail? Haden cautions bosses not “to go back and re-create one.” Instead, he said, “start now and follow the process.”
2. Keep calm.
You should never fire someone in the heat of the moment, when emotions are maxed and tempers are flared—even if the employee violates a zero-tolerance policy. That’s because, as Haden says, it’s crucial to “be certain”—and “the heat of the moment can cause you to make a snap decision that is neither correct nor fair.” That’s why he suggests taking “a few minutes to make sure the employee’s action truly falls within the parameters of that policy. When you’re mad (or really disappointed) it’s easy to think, ‘That’s it...she has to go,’ and unintentionally forget about guidelines and precedents.”
Make sure you won’t regret your decision later.
While you can certainly re-hire someone you mistakenly let go, your relationship with that employee may not ever be the same: “no one will ever forget what happened, especially the employee,” Haden said. There also could be legal implications associated with wrongly terminating someone’s employment. When in doubt, always speak with an attorney before taking any action that could land you in hot water.
3. Prepare yourself.
Have your ducks in a row—before you sit down with the employee.
Once you’ve made the decision to let someone go, it’s a good idea to move swiftly. There’s no sense letting things drag on any longer than they have to—no matter how much you may be dreading the impending conversation. However, you should be sure you are fully prepared before you sit down to talk with the employee. In this NOLO article, attorney Amy DelPo explains that means performing a thorough review of the employee’s personnel file and knowing the answers to all relevant logistical questions, including the following (adapted from the NOLO, Forbes, and Inc. articles):
- When should the employee expect to receive his or her final paycheck? (If possible, bring the check with you to the meeting—and be prepared to discuss details such as whether or not paid vacation time is included.)
- Is severance pay available? If so, what are the details? (According to DelPo, if the employee is required to sign a release in order to collect severance, “do not pressure the employee into making a decision at the meeting.”)
- When is the employee’s official last day—or, is the termination effective immediately?
- What happens to the employee’s benefits?
- How—or when—should the employee collect personal items?
- How should the employee go about returning company equipment?
- What is going to happen to the employee’s remaining work, appointments, and/or clients?
- Are there contractual obligations that remain in effect after the employee’s last day (e.g., a noncompete or nondisclosure agreement)? If so, be prepared to review them at the meeting.
- What resources are available if the employee has questions after he or she leaves the office?
Make an awkward situation less awkward.
“The time between [saying], ‘You’re fired’ and when the employee actually leaves the building is awkward for everyone,” Hayden said. “Make things easier by knowing every detail in the process so it goes as smoothly as possible.”
4. Choose the right environment.
Find a private, confidential, and comfortable space.
Unless you’re genuinely concerned that the conversation will go really badly—as in the “employee might commit some type of violence, sabotage, or threat”—DelPo said “you should hold the meeting where the employee will be most comfortable.” Aim for a location that’s quiet, allows for confidential conversation, and “leaves the employee somewhere to process the news away from prying eyes.” The employee’s office is ideal—if it’s private. Otherwise, a “private workspace, conference room, or other private neutral spot—with a door that closes and walls that go all the way to the ceiling—is the next best thing,” she writes.
Consider bringing someone else to the meeting.
Hayden also suggests bringing along a witness—such as someone in human resources or a fellow manager—although there are some drawbacks to doing so: “While not absolutely essential, having someone else in the room eliminates the risk of the employee later claiming you said things you did not,” he said. "At the same time, a witness makes an awkward situation even more awkward. The employee might feel the second person is in the room simply to provide protection or backup if he gets angry. That's a little insulting...but in the end your job is to protect your company, so bring in a witness. Safe, in this case, is better than sorry.”
5. Be professional.
Use straightforward language that cannot be misunderstood.
Once you’ve started the meeting, it’s best to be straightforward and to-the-point. According to DelPo, that means no “small talk, jokes or pleasantries,” as these can send mixed messages to the employee. While Hayden suggests saying something like, “Mary, I’m sorry, but we have to let you go,” DelPo prefers “informing the employee that you are terminating his or her employment as of a particular date,” because “actually using the words ‘terminated’ or ‘termination’ is often the best approach to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding.” Whatever you decide, steer clear from “ambiguous language (‘things aren’t working out’) or euphemisms (‘it may be time for you to consider moving on’).”
Explain your decision—don’t justify it.
You’ll want to follow this up with a brief explanation—not a justification—of your decision. After all, as Hayden explains, if you’ve done your job properly to date, the employee already knows this is coming. DelPo suggests aiming for an “objective and professional” tone: “if you’re too direct,” she said, “you risk seeming cold-hearted.” However, “being sympathetic might make it seem like you are apologizing or backtracking from the decision.” She recommends you “simply state the reasons and leave it at that.”
6. Don’t react.
Stay calm and listen.
Your employee will probably need some time to process the news, and he or she may react with a wide range of emotions—some of which may be directed at you. This is normal. What’s not normal is for you to react to his or her reaction. At this point, the very best thing you can do—according to Ashkenas—is “listen with respect and then direct the person towards the practical realities of moving on.” DelPo suggests resisting “being drawn into an argument about the decision. If the employee wants to vent or express unhappiness, you can simply say, ‘I understand you feel that way, but the decision is final’”—or, per Hayden: "Mary, I'll be happy to talk about this as long as you wish, but you should understand that nothing we say will change the decision."
Some other words of wisdom from DelPo include resisting the “temptation to distance yourself from the situation.” This is particularly important if you weren’t the one who actually made the termination decision: “Telling the employee that you would have handled things differently or you don’t agree with the company’s decision will almost certainly lead to problems during and after the meeting,” she said. Hayden agrees; in another article he wrote on the topic, he warns employers not to use the word “we,” and instead take responsibility for the decision because “at this moment, you are the company.”
According to Hayden, “The less you say the more dignity the employee retains. Stick to the point and be professional. And don’t feel bad for not mincing words—at this point, the employee has almost no interest in hearing you spout platitudes anyway.”
7. Stay sincere.
Only offer what you’re willing to give.
Speaking of platitudes, it’s unwise to offer assistance that you can’t or won’t provide. While saying something like, “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” may feel like a nice gesture, the employee will know if it’s not sincere. As Hayden explains, “if you’re firing someone for cause there are few ways you can help them get another job.” However, if you’re letting someone go because you don’t have enough work for them to do, there may very well be things you can do, including writing a recommendation letter or connecting the employee to someone else in your industry who may be able to bring that person on board.
Both DelPo and Hayden suggest ending the meeting in the most pleasant way possible—by wishing the employee good luck and shaking hands. Then, take a few moments for yourself. These conversations can be emotionally exhausting—even when you know you made the right call.
8. Close the loop.
Communicate the change to the team.
Once the employee has left and you’ve had a few moments for yourself, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll fill the rest of your team in on what has transpired. They may already have their suspicions—so the sooner you can address the situation, the better. This will help reduce anxiety and squash rumors. Ashkenas recommends sharing what you can about “the process, the reasoning, and the implications [of this decision] for them (within the limits of confidentiality).” Sometimes, your team will understand the decision; other times, they may not. “In either case, you need to be sensitive to their emotions, and then help redirect their focus back on work,” Ashkenas said.
There’s nothing you can do to make firing an employee pleasant, but if you follow these steps, you’ll at least walk away feeling good about your decision and the way you handled yourself in a difficult situation. This is important for many reasons—one of them being that research has shown the way an employer handles an employee’s termination factors in to that employee’s decision on whether or not to sue (according to DelPo). To learn more about the legal issues associated with terminating the employee-employer relationship, check out NOLO’s resources here.
Plus, 10 things you should never do.
Still feeling unsure about how to handle an impending termination? Here are 10 of the biggest no-nos in list format (adapted from this article):