Despite your best attempts to right the ship, there’s a certain employee on your team who just can’t seem to meet expectations—and, it’s left you scrambling to figure out exactly how to fire an employee nicely.
I feel your pain. Needing to fire someone is never a pleasant experience, making it a highly-dreaded task for most managers.
However, when you’re in the driver’s seat, it’s also up to you to ensure that you maintain a high-performing team. So, if an employee is repeatedly breaking rules or ignoring expectations—regardless of how many attempts you’ve made to correct the behavior—it’s time to cut them loose.
How can you do so—ideally without flipped tables, tantrums, or tears?
Let’s dig into everything you need to know to implement the proper etiquette and let that employee down as easily as possible.
Wait… Won’t Firing an Employee Destroy My Team’s Morale?
Removing an employee from your team doesn’t just impact that one person. It often causes a ripple effect through your entire group of direct reports.
Why was he or she let go? Is something wrong? Does this mean I’m next?
Those types of questions can linger in the minds of your team members who remain, and can easily create a feeling of instability and anxiety within your department.
For that reason, many managers worry that firing an employee will destroy their team’s morale, and thus just let things drag out for as long as possible.
Here’s the thing: Yes, the firing of their colleague will undoubtedly inspire some questions and uncertainty with your other team members.
However, as long as you’re prepared to address the situation with a certain degree of transparency, it’s nothing you can’t bounce back from.
After that employee has been removed from the team, sit down with your other direct reports to debrief them of the situation.
You don’t need to get into the nitty gritty details here (that terminated employee deserves his or her privacy), but this is your chance to be the first to let your team know and assure them that this was a performance issue—and not an indication of things to come for the rest of the team.
Give them a chance to ask any questions they have—whether it’s about how that employee’s work will be handled moving forward or what the hiring process for that role will look like—and do your best to answer them as honestly as possible.
That effort to be forthcoming with your team will go a long way in making sure that your morale doesn’t take a nosedive.
If you’re still feeling doubtful, ask yourself this: Is it really worse for morale to let an employee go, rather than letting him or her continually ignore the rules or skate by while shirking any and all responsibility?
Chances are, that second option would probably weigh on your team way more than the first. They’d understandably become discouraged that they were investing time and effort into their best work while a different team member was held to a totally different standard. You’re doing the right thing by setting a precedent.
Actually, when slackers and slouches are finally fired, managers usually discover that coworkers are relieved,
-explains management consultant, Dick Grote, in his article for Harvard Business Review,-
Their peers are the ones who have had to work harder to make up for their shortcomings and slacking off. When terminations are well justified and professionally executed, the rest of the work group realizes that this is a good place to work.
How to Fire an Employee Nicely: 7 Must-Know Tips
With that out of the way, what do you need to know to let an employee down easy? Here are seven key tips to make that dreaded conversation go as smoothly as possible.
1. Give Them Time to Change
If the first conversation that you and your employee have about his performance is when you’re firing him, something is very, very wrong.
Unless there’s an unexpected restructuring or other changes within your company, this serious conversation about your employee’s future shouldn’t seem totally out of the blue.
In short, their lack of an adequate performance shouldn’t be a surprise to them—because you should have had previous discussions in order to attempt to correct that behavior.
If you haven’t done that?
Rather than immediately jumping on the firing bandwagon, it’s worth sitting that employee down, pointing out the behaviors that need to change, and then identifying some action steps that employee can take to improve.
If you don’t see changes within 30 days or so?
At that point, you’re justified in taking more corrective or final measures.
Understandably, employees who feel blindsided by a firing and like they weren’t even given a chance to make things better will be angry and frustrated. So, the first step in firing someone as politely as possible is ensuring that you don’t jump to conclusions and give them adequate time to change.
2. Find the Right Time and Place
This much should be obvious: Nothing good can come from firing an employee in a highly public setting. It’s humiliating, demoralizing, and downright unprofessional.
You need to find an atmosphere—somewhere private, quiet, and free from constant distractions—where you both can devote your full attention to that conversation.
In terms of timing, there are numerous passionate yet conflicting opinions about the best day of the week and the best time of day to fire an employee.
Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference and what you think makes the most sense for your team.
If you want to seem as inconspicuous as possible?
A Friday afternoon is a good bet, because that person will be able to clean out their belongings in private and you’ll also have the weekend for things to settle down.
If you’d rather get it over with and avoid stringing that employee along for even longer?
A Tuesday morning, for example, will give them the rest of the day and week to jump right in with their job search.
The important thing is that there isn’t one right answer here—and, really, there’s no great time to fire someone. Feel out your team, your employee’s schedule, and your company culture, and you’ll likely identify a time that will work best.
3. Make Your Point Explicitly Clear
Let’s face it—this conversation can be awkward at best. For that reason, it can be tempting to pack a few compliments into your spiel, just to cushion the blow.
However, doing so only confuses your message to that employee. After all, wouldn’t you feel disoriented if somebody told you, “You do great work, you’re fired, but thanks for all of the awesome things you’ve done here”? Probably.
You need to make the point of that conversation almost painfully clear: Their employment is ending and they need to move on.
I know what you’re thinking: How is this a nice way to fire an employee? It sounds unnecessarily brutal.
However, you aren’t doing you or that person any favors by trying to pad their ego with a bunch of unnecessary (and likely false) compliments. That added confusion will only hurt both of you in the long run.
So, it’s better to be as clear as possible—and, no, that doesn’t mean you need to be cutthroat and rude. Here’s what this could look like:
Thanks for sitting down with me, Tony. While I appreciate your work here over the past year and some of the efforts you’ve made to improve your performance as we’ve previously discussed, it’s not working out and your employment here at Company XYZ has come to an end.
I know—it still hurts. But, at least that employee won’t be left picking up the pieces from a conversation that ultimately made no sense.
4. Avoid Pet Peeve Phrases
Another thing that’s tempting to do when you feel the need to sugarcoat that conversation? To lean on a bunch of common phrases that will likely only irk your employee.
According to Dick Grote in that same article for Harvard Business Review, these types of phrases include:
- “I understand how you feel.”
- “You should’ve known.”
- “I know that this hurts right now but later on you’ll realize that this is the best thing that could have happened.”
None of these things are helpful to say to that employee in the heat of the moment. And, even further, they come off as condescending when that person is already in an emotionally fragile state—which is only going to add to that person’s frustration and hurt feelings.
So, resist the urge to equate your own experiences or make light of the situation. Those will only make things worse.
If you still feel the need to say something? Try something like, “I know this isn’t easy, but I’m confident that it’s the best decision for both of us.”
5. Ask Questions About the Transition
You’re the boss, and this isn’t a situation where your employee can make demands or steer the conversation.
But, if you want to appear as gracious and professional as possible, it doesn’t hurt to conclude the conversation by asking a few important questions about next steps.
For example, ask if there’s something you could do to support them during this transition or if they have preferences in terms of when and how the news is shared with the rest of the team.
Ask him what he needs, what would make this easier, and what kinds of support you can give him in the exiting process. Some companies, depending on the circumstances, allow employees to choose their own exit timeline and how the news is shared with peers. This has pros and cons and is a leadership call; you’ll have to decide what works best for you,
– explains Anese Cavanaugh in an article for Harvard Business Review.
By asking these questions, you’re giving at least a little bit of power back to that employee in a situation where he or she otherwise feels totally helpless.
6. Resist an Argument
In some cases, no matter how seamless you try to make that conversation, the employee will become angry and defensive.
If you take nothing else away from this article, make it this: Don’t take the bait. Don’t meet that hostility with more hostility or evidence that you’re right. This isn’t your chance to pour salt into that wound by pointing out all of the times this employee screwed up. That will only escalate the situation.
What does this all mean? Well, let’s say that employee starts yelling, “You can’t do this! You have no reason to fire me!”
Human nature might tell you that this is the time when you start listing off all of the reasons—from when she dropped that ball with an important client to when she was repeatedly late with deadlines—that she had this coming.
That’s only going to get tempers flaring even more. Instead, respond with something straightforward and simple like:
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but this decision is final.”
It might feel like a bit of a cop-out when all of your instincts are telling you that you should stand your ground, engage in that conversation, and prove your point.
But, here’s the thing: Almost no employee—no matter how terrible—believes that he or she should be fired. So, regardless of how hard you try, you aren’t going to sway that person to your way of thinking. It’s not worth the effort, or the added fuel in the fire.
7. Stand Firm in Your Decision
Another possible response from that employee? A request for one more chance to make things right.
As tempting as it can be to cave, you need to stand firm in your original decision.
Going back on that will breed toxicity in that relationship (how engaged and positive will an employee be after they know they were almost fired?) while also making you look like a weak leader.
So, while it can be tough to stand your ground—particularly if that employee gets emotional or begs—you need to do so.
Tackle That Conversation
Needing to fire an employee will never be an enjoyable experience. However, there are some tips you can implement to make that conversation as smooth as possible.
Put these strategies to work, and you’ll hopefully end that conversation with a handshake and best wishes for the future—rather than tears and a temper tantrum.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.