One of the most difficult parts of any leader’s responsibility is the moment when they have to let a team member go. For the compassionate, empathetic leader, firing someone is tough no matter what role you serve in a business or why the person is being fired. The employee might be someone you really care about and like, but they aren’t right for the job, they perform poorly at what they were hired to do, or they’re a victim of the Peter Principle. Perhaps they’ve engaged in the quiet quitting trend or are pursuing a job abandonment path. Maybe it’s not a performance issue but rather the business can’t afford to keep them on. Regardless, when terminating an employee, it’s important to do it the right way.
Terminating an employee shouldn’t be taken lightly. If done wrong, the organization could face significant penalties. A wrongful termination lawsuit may cost the company dearly. For example, in California, the average settlement costs $40,000, but that amount can range anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 or more. Even if there is just cause in terminating an employee, research has shown that firing someone earning $30,000 to $50,000 can cost around 20 percent of their annual salary in order to find a replacement. That number goes up the more the employee makes.
No matter your worries, the time will come when you will need to know how to fire someone. That means treating them with respect and having key knowledge on how to properly handle a sensitive situation. As you learn more about this, you’ll be able to produce the best outcomes for everyone, including the terminated employee.
How to Fire Someone Properly
1. Have a Plan in Place for Terminating the Employee
You can’t expect to do something right if you don’t prepare for it. As Benjamin Franklin once advised, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” This goes for pretty much everything in life, including how to fire an employee. Prepare in advance for the moment. Don’t try to wing it. Winging it will only lead to problems.
Here are some of the things you should keep in mind when planning for the termination:
- Determine exactly when and where the termination will take place. This helps you know how much time you have to prepare and get all of your ducks in a row, so to speak.
- Review the company policy in the employee handbook when it comes to termination. Make sure you’re following the right procedures, and don’t skip any steps.
- Part of those procedures should include securing all sensitive information that the employee has access to. Right before meeting with the employee, protect important systems, backup saves, confidential records, and more. This may involve revoking special permissions the employee has enjoyed. You don’t want a fired worker to mess with those items after they’ve been fired.
- Beforehand, you should also list out the company property the employee will need to return. This can include ID badges, laptops, company cell phones, and more.
- Include a detailed transition strategy for finding a replacement. Obviously, this won’t be something the employee knows about, but it will help you in the process of hiring employees to fill the newly vacant position as quickly as possible.
- Gather any necessary documents you’ll need in case they dispute the termination. That can include documented warnings, poor performance reviews, and any other evidence that indicates the employee should have known this was coming.
- For the termination meeting, have a termination document at hand. This is the form the employee will sign that entails the reason for the firing and any other conditions associated with it, such as severance pay.
2. Discuss the Upcoming Change With Your Human Resources Department
You don’t want to keep everyone in the dark about the change you’re making. In particular, HR will need to know about your decision in advance. Think of HR as your partner in this process. Not only do they have experience and guidance they can share about terminating an employee, but they also serve as a witness for termination. That is something you’ll need for additional legal protection.
Here are a few things to remember:
- Work with an HR representative to determine proper severance pay, if applicable.
- Review any paperwork needed for the termination.
- Go over what you plan to say during the termination meeting. HR can help you determine what language to use that will ensure everything goes smoothly.
- Have HR attend the meeting as a neutral party. The HR representative will also likely take notes and answer any questions that come up.
3. Request a Date and Time to Meet With the Employee
Choosing the right time to fire someone can be an agonizing decision. According to Kari Rosand Scanlon, the Principal Consultant of Spotlight HR Solutions, the best time to schedule that fateful meeting is on a Monday. As she explains, this helps your team members learn how to work without the terminated employee. It also gives the employee an entire week to start their job search.
Susan M. Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant, disagrees, however. She recommends a mid-week termination meeting. “Preferably, this decision is made mid-week, early in the day on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday,” she says. “This gives the employee some work hours during the week, and he or she doesn’t feel as if they wasted their time coming to work which happens when you fire an employee on Monday.”
As always, communicate the meeting time and place to the HR rep. Also, pick somewhere that’s private. You never know what type of emotions may come out during the course of the meeting.
4. Keep the Conversation Brief, Clear, and Direct
The actual meeting doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out thing. President of GrowthSource Coaching Steve Smith recommends keeping things short and to the point. He says, “I always recommend to be resolute with your decision, clear with your reasons, and brief with your interaction.”
Researcher Brené Brown has a saying for all her business interactions: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” The same holds true when you fire someone. The goal is to inform them that there is bad news and to let them know what that bad news means for them. At this stage, the “why” should already be known.
Be clear about everything, and don’t beat around the bush. When Harvard Business Review editor Karen Dillon first had to fire someone, it turned into a disaster. “I was so worried about myself […] that I know I delivered a very garbled message,” she says. “I went through a very waffly explanation of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ I gave her all kinds of compliments in the course of firing her.” The message Dillon gave only left the employee more confused and frustrated.
During the conversation, you should also keep in mind the following:
- Acting overly sympathetic could come across as patronizing or inauthentic.
- You don’t have to be robotic or emotionless, but too much emotion could provide false hope and unintentionally be cruel.
- The conversation has a specific goal in mind. Your job is to make sure the information is provided and understood.
5. Take a Moment to Listen to Feedback and Answer Questions
The employee you choose to fire will likely have a response, though that response can vary. Some may express shock at being fired. Others may show signs of sadness, even to the extent that they only weep. It’s important that you listen to what they say in order to gauge how they’re feeling. Answer any questions they have, but don’t spend time on long explanations. The reasoning for your decision should have been made clear long ago.
For example, some employees may deny what’s happening to them or think there’s a way to salvage the situation. In such an instance, you need to be even more direct and clear with them and repeat your message as often as necessary. In all cases, acknowledge their emotions but reiterate that the decision is final. There’s no going back on it.
Here’s a quick guide on how to respond in different cases:
- Provide a listening ear and be empathetic.
- Keep the conversation flowing—don’t dwell on the termination.
- Look to the future and the possibilities that lie ahead.
- Don’t get into a debate over the decision.
- Acknowledge how they’re feeling.
- Repeat the decision in clear language when necessary.
- Don’t fall back no matter how much they push.
- Repeat the termination message so they understand.
- Don’t spend time defending your decision.
- Don’t get into an argument.
- Show understanding for their emotions.
- Repeat the message.
- Continue to repeat the message as necessary.
- Don’t bend or leave room for any doubt over the decision to terminate.
6. Provide Crucial Information About What Happens Next
After their initial emotional response, fired employees will likely have a lot of questions about what happens next. Their future, after all, feels uncertain.
Here are just some of the questions they may ask:
- “Am I fired immediately?”
- “Do I get severance pay?”
- “What does this mean for my healthcare coverage?”
- “What about my other benefits?”
- “Do I need to return my company laptop?”
- “How can I stay in contact with my friends from work?”
You should already have a plan in place for what you need to communicate to the employee. Refer back to that plan (made in Step 1) to cover anything they absolutely need to know before they leave company grounds. As you anticipate these questions, you’ll be able to answer quickly and confidently. In case they ask a question you didn’t expect, you can defer to the HR representative at the meeting or you can admit you don’t know the answer. Provided it is appropriate, you can always reach out to them with the needed information once you have it.
7. Try to End the Work Relationship on a Good Note
The act of firing an employee is one of the most difficult things you’ll do, especially if it’s someone you’ve worked with for years. Try as best as you can to end things on a more positive note. That doesn’t mean you need to give an apology, but you should express your gratitude for the work they’ve done.
When appropriate, provide resources and advice they can use for their job search. This allows them to hit the ground running. You may even offer to be a reference if they are not being fired for poor performance. However, you should only do this if they’re taking the termination well. In certain situations, making that offer may only come across as a slap in the face.
Above all, give them encouragement. Show confidence that they’ll be able to land on their feet. In the moment, the employee may find those words a bit empty, but it may help to bolster them as they look for a new job.
Here are some things you should not do:
- Offer to keep them on as a contracted employee.
- Talk about side gigs or investment opportunities that do little to replace their income.
- Tell them it was not your decision but a decision from the higher-ups.
- Talk about your own feelings and how difficult this has been for you.
8. Walk the Employee Out
This step, of course, applies to in-office workers. The final walk-out can sometimes be the most difficult part of firing someone. While some may think escorting the employee out is unnecessary, keep in mind why you’re letting them go. Ultimately, it’s for the good of the company.
The fact is that terminating an employee sometimes invites unpredictable reactions and consequences. When you walk out with them, you keep things within your control. You make sure they’re not leaving with company property. You also ensure they don’t do anything damaging on the way out. The walk-out is all about avoiding problems.
This is also an additional opportunity to end things on a high note. Shake hands with the now ex-employee and thank them again. Yes, it’s an unpleasant experience, but you have to do it.
Firing a Remote Worker
Many of the above tips can be useful when firing a remote worker, but the remote aspect does provide a unique challenge. In many cases, the traditional face-to-face firing won’t apply. Even so, follow the steps above as closely as possible.
Meet with the employee on a video chat if at all possible. Additionally, you’ll want to work with an HR representative to make sure things proceed efficiently, such as with reacquiring any company property given to the worker. You may need to send the employee an email afterward so they can sign their termination papers, as well.
Great Communication Makes Firing Less Painful for Both Parties
There are ways to make an employee termination easier, and it all entails communication. If you have built up a business culture around communication, a termination should not be a surprise for an employee. Managers need to communicate with team members along the way, notifying them when they’re falling short of expectations.
Here are some items to keep in mind:
- Have quarterly performance reviews with your team members.
- Set firm goals and expectations.
- Alert employees when they’re not meeting those goals.
- Discuss with the team member what steps they need to take to meet expectations.
- Set strict deadlines for those goals.
If you’re communicating all this information clearly, then employees will know if a firing is a real possibility. If you need help on how to communicate this, check out the following article:
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- Carleton, Cheryl. “Firing Workers Might Cost Them More Than Keeping Them During Coronavirus.” The National Interest, 21 Apr. 2020, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/firing-workers-might-cost-them-more-keeping-them-during-coronavirus-146262.
- Headley, CW. “Everyone Knows Friday Is the Worst Day to Fire Someone, but the Monday vs. Thursday Argument Still Divides HR Experts.” Insider, 17 Apr. 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/experts-agree-friday-worst-day-to-fire-someone-best-day-2019-4.
- “Best Ways to Fire an Employee: Expert Tips – Businessnewsdaily.Com.” Business News Daily, https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/7969-employee-firing-tips.html. Accessed 11 July 2022.
- Barrall, Suzanne. “Clear Is Kind. Unclear Is Unkind.” Brené Brown, 15 Oct. 2018, https://brenebrown.com/articles/2018/10/15/clear-is-kind-unclear-is-unkind/.
- Dillon, Karen. “How Not to Fire Someone.” Harvard Business Review Home, 1 Oct. 2013, https://hbr.org/video/2226924256001/how-not-to-fire-someone.
- What’s The Average Settlement Value Of A Wrongful Termination Case In California? (2021, July 7). Wrongful Termination Attorney Los Angeles. https://www.ragerlawoffices.com/whats-the-average-settlement-value-of-a-wrongful-termination-case-in-california/
- What Is the Best Day to Fire an Employee? (2020, October 31). LiveAbout. https://www.liveabout.com/what-s-the-best-day-to-fire-an-employee-1917578