If you’re a manager, sooner or later you’re going to have to fire someone. Guaranteed. While it’s never fun, some experiences are more draining than others.
As a manager, I’ve fired employees for no-brainer reasons, like falsifying timesheets and routinely calling in sick when their Facebook profiles showed them at a friend’s afternoon pool party. I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that you reap what you sow.
Other terminations have stayed with me. Even as I’m writing this, I feel a pang as I recall:
- The coder who worked hard but didn’t have the expertise we needed to meet changing client demands.
- The friendly and respectful account manager who was too laid-back to do a job that required drive and ambition.
- The web designer who was hired to create websites using one platform but failed to grasp the new platform when our agency’s content management system changed.
None of these employees were saboteurs out to harm the agency brand and reputation. Despite everyone’s best intentions and hopes, they didn’t work out. Still, you have to fire them, and it doesn’t feel good. It may even be hazardous to your health: a 1998 study carried out at 45 hospitals across the country revealed that managers had a significantly higher chance of suffering a heart attack during the week after they fired an employee.
Before I go any further, perhaps I should address the laid off vs. fired difference.
- Laying someone off occurs when a company downsizes or changes direction. Technically, it’s the employer who is at fault, for want of a better term. As a result, the former employee can collect unemployment benefits.
- When someone is fired, it is because of something that they did or did not do (or are believed to have done or not done) that made it impossible to continue the employment relationship. Whether or not they can collect unemployment benefits will depend on the reason for the termination.
In other words, when you lay someone off, you can truthfully say, “It’s not you, it’s us.” When you fire someone, you’re silently saying, “It’s you,” which is hard.
The Wrong Way to Let Someone Go
Most companies have one protocol when it comes to terminating an employee. It goes something like this:
- Say no more than you have to
- Get the ex-employee out of the building as quickly as possible
- Have them sign a severance agreement in which they promise not to sue the company, compete with it, or solicit its clients
This formula is designed to mitigate legal risk, but it also makes the employee feel like he or she can’t be trusted. It can also backfire later: according to a 2009 study, terminated employees who sue their former employer usually base their decision on how they were treated during the firing. It also makes a bad impression on the remaining employees, who may wonder if they will be treated the same way if something goes wrong.
Fortunately, there are companies that treat terminated employees with trust and respect. Here are some approaches that I’ve seen previous employers use to help people leave the company with their dignity intact. Use them and you’ll find that the process, while never easy, helps you sleep better at night.
Prepare for the Meeting
Always prepare. Not only is this easier on you, but you won’t make the employee feel as if this is a nuisance task to be completed as quickly as possible.
In addition to knowing what you intend to say, meet with HR beforehand to get all of the documents and information that you and the employee will need. You should also choose a private place: popular boardrooms and other spaces that get a lot of traffic throughout the day are not good options. Every option that will preserve the person’s dignity should be exercised.
Timing is Everything
Many companies terminate employees on a Friday, believing that they will have the weekend to recover and update their resume before looking for another job. I disagree with this practice. Sure, it’s more convenient for the company payroll, but the employee’s job leads and business contacts likely won’t be accessible until Monday.
If possible, terminate someone in the middle of the week, when they can pursue potential leads and even land another job before the weekend. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen!)
Give an Honest Reason
Knowing what to say when terminating someone is hard, and you may be tempted to be less than forthcoming about why the person is being fired. I know managers who resort to the classic “It’s not working out” which, to me, is the ultimate cop-out.
If you are honest about why the employee is being terminated, they will feel more respected and understand what went wrong. If it’s a skills issue, they will know what they have to do if they want to seek another job in the field. If they were chronically late for reasons beyond their control, they will understand that they need a job with flexible hours.
In this respect, honesty appears to be the best policy. According to a study referenced in the Wall Street Journal, employees were ten times more likely to sue a former employer when no reason was given for firing them.
I’m going to address a touchy subject: firings for a reason that is legally risky to disclose. For example, if an employee has a disorder that causes them to behave in ways that annoy or inconvenience others (but are protected by the ADA), companies have been known to give alternate reasons for firing them. They can’t say, “Giving you a desk in a private area because you have sensory issues will annoy employees who have to deal with the open concept office.” So they say something like, “We’ve changed direction and no longer need a (insert the employee’s job title).”
If you work for a business that tries to skirt the law in this manner, start sending out your resume. Fast.
Be Firm But Empathetic
If you’re wondering how to fire someone nicely, being firm but empathetic is important. Unless the person deliberately acted in ways that harmed the company or its employees, always remember that they don’t deserve a cold dismissal. You also should not deliver the news in a way that leads them to believe that the decision is anything but final.
As you go through this difficult conversation, acknowledge the person’s good qualities and stress that they will probably be an excellent fit at another company, but if the issue was job performance, don’t downplay the problems that led to the firing. Again: if you want to know how to fire someone in a way that ends in clarity and mutual respect, be compassionare but honest.
What to Do After Firing Someone
Wrap up all outstanding details with as much sensitivity as possible. This includes providing the employee with necessary information about severance pay, the continuation of benefits, unused vacation time, returning computers and other company property, and more. Offer to provide a job reference if appropriate.
If possible, arrange to have belongings like photos, books, plants, and other personal items shipped to the person. Requiring them to clear their desk while their coworkers look on is both humiliating and unfair. In addition, if the employee is distraught or in shock, offering to send them home in a taxi is a thoughtful and appropriate gesture.
Depending on the company policy and the reason for terminating the employee, you may be able to take measures like the following to preserve their self-respect and sense of worth.
- Hire them as a part-time temporary consultant to complete outstanding projects. If you had to let them go because the budget no longer supported a full-time position, this offer creates a win-win situation. Work gets done and the employee doesn’t feel as if they did anything wrong.
- Introduce them to recruiters who can help them find a position more suited to their skills and qualifications.
- One company I worked for had an outplacement policy that allowed employees who weren’t terminated for cause (e.g. dishonesty, insubordination) to temporarily use a desk in the office to carry out their job search.
A good friend of mine works for a creative services company that has a unique approach to dealing with well-intentioned employees who aren’t working out. They provide the person with early notice that things aren’t working out and offer to let them resign of their own accord with a couple months of severance. He tells me that they’ve never had anyone react negatively: by that point, they know that they aren’t a good fit and welcome the opportunity to exit on their own terms.
If you have a heart, firing someone is an emotionally-draining experience. Telling someone that they no longer have a job is one of the worst pieces of news that you can deliver. But treating the employee with dignity and respect will help you understand that you aren’t ending their career as much as you are making them available for newer and better opportunities.
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.