The worst thing you have to do as a manager is fire someone. To this day, I can’t sleep the night before doing it. I take it very seriously and so should you. Anyone who says they like it or don’t mind doing it is either lying or cruel. But sometimes, you have no choice. You’ve tried everything. You gave clear feedback. You offered to help. You did everything you could to make it work. Sometimes parting ways is the only solution left.
At this point the focus shifts to making a plan for how to fire someone nicely, legally, and fairly. While terminating a team member will never be easy, I can be done properly. This way you help the person preserve their dignity, and you can protect the company from any potential liability or reputation damage.
The key for managers is to strike the right balance between offering absolute clarity, and showing compassion. The moment you get fired is lonely and scary. This needs to be front and center in your mind when you deliver the news. You’re sending someone home to have to tell their spouse, their friends, their kids, that they were terminated. They have to figure out how to pick themselves back up and start again. They have to find a way to earn a living. The emotional stakes couldn’t be higher.
But on the other hand, you are also representing a corporation. You have an obligation to be clear and concise, and avoid saying anything that could put the company at risk. As challenging as the situation is, you must also stay focused on protecting the reputation of the organization. Future employees want to know they’ll be treated with respect and dignity should their tenures some to an end at some point.
Here are a few points to take with you the next time you have to let someone go. I remind myself of these points even now, having had the unfortunate opportunity to let more than a hundred people go over the course of my career.
The tendency is to let your own nervousness and emotions get in the way. You ramble. You try to sugar coat it. You try to spin it as a positive. Don’t do this. If you’re asking yourself how to fire someone nicely, the most important thing is to be crystal clear. You can be sympathetic, but first you need to be clear. When I’m letting someone go I get right to it. I say something like “Bob, I’m really sorry to tell you but we are letting you go effective immediately.” I pause to allow the person to take it all in – it can sometimes take a few moments. It’s hard and it’s awkward but it’s absolutely vital to be clear and concise in delivering this news.
If I’m terminating someone remotely, I will use a script to ensure I am clear and concise. Yes, even now I still use a script – it’s one less thing to worry about. If I’m in person, I will spend time practicing beforehand, and I’ll keep my remarks extremely brief so as to avoid any missteps or miscommunication.
The first time I had to fire someone I was too clinical. I was so focused on delivering the script that I must have seemed cold. The whole thing took 60 seconds. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve learned to offer clarity first and then take a moment to empathize and show my support. Even if the person you’re terminating was a terrible employee by any objective measure, its still going to be one of the worst days of their professional lives. You owe them some compassion. Take a moment, once you’ve clearly communicated what is happening, to offer them your sympathy and support.
Again, you don’t want to ramble, but you do want to show compassion. Add one line to your script that demonstrates you truly care about your team member.
Terminating a person is hard and you should take help where you can get it. I almost always have an HR partner to support me in delivering the news. It’s an emotional moment for everyone involved and the last thing you want to do is make a mistake in what you say or how you say it. You also want to be able to answer any questions the exiting employee has. Some managers try to do this all themselves, but I think that is a mistake most of the time.
I rely heavily on an HR resource when terminating a team member. It takes a lot the pressure off. They terminate people every day and they’re paid to know what to say and how to answer tough questions or respond to challenging reactions.
Firing a team member is the worst job a leader has. I wish I could tell you it gets easier with time and experience, but it doesn’t really. You might get a bit more confident in your ability to handle the situation, but it’s still really hard. The best thing you can do is to remember this is going to be one of the worst days of your team member’s career. It may feel difficult to you, but that pales in comparison to what they are about to experience. Have empathy, have compassion, and offer clear, concise information. That’s your job.
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