Most managers say firing employees is the most uncomfortable task they face.
The message is simple and straightforward. Yet most of us dread delivering it—so much so that we often put up with poor performance for weeks, months—occasionally perpetually.
Why is it so difficult to fire an employee?
Perhaps because we worry about how the employee will react. Will he be emotional? Want to argue? Become aggressive?
Probably it’s also because we realize being fired is traumatic—a major blow to self-esteem. The rejection of a firing stings for years; the employee rarely forgets the circumstances, and often remembers the exact words his manager used.
Performing poorly in one job doesn’t mean a person is worthless, unemployable, or malevolent. Often, he’s simply in the wrong job, isn’t ready to work, is distracted by personal issues, or lacks a needed skill. A fired employee almost always eventually finds work he can do.
We can minimize his demoralization and encourage him to find a productive role in society by choosing our words carefully. Being kind, understanding, and respectful is basic human compassion, and in this situation, can make a huge difference, not just in a day, but in a life.
However, being compassionate doesn’t mean procrastinating. We have an obligation to maintain a capable and effective team and we should make the change as soon as we determine the person is not appropriate. Putting it off only frustrates our teams and makes it more expensive for our organizations. It also delays the employee in his search for more satisfying work.
Large companies and organizations sometimes have an HR department as well as policies and documents pertaining to terminations. If so, we should notify the HR department, see what’s required, and get their input and assistance in planning the termination.
Terminations aren’t difficult when we’ve communicated regularly with the employee and given them open and honest feedback. If they’re aware they’re doing poorly, they have an opportunity to either improve their performance, or, if they prefer, find other work. Employees who know how they’re doing rarely have to be fired.
If we have to initiate the separation, the conversation should be short and respectful.
Firing for Underperformance
Dan has been with ABC several months. Mike and Dan have had several performance conversations, so Dan knows he isn’t meeting expectations. Five minutes before quitting time Mike asks Dan to his office.
M: Dan, you’re a talented guy but it just hasn’t worked out.
D: I was afraid it was coming to that.
M: I’m sorry, Dan. I hope you’ll be able to find a spot where you can really use your talents and excel.
Mike doesn’t rehash Dan’s shortcomings or elaborate on the reasons for termination. That would only demoralize Dan and create hard feelings. The decision has been made, and Mike makes the separation short and blameless.
D: I knew it was coming but I’m not looking forward to telling my family and friends I was fired.
M: I understand. If you’d like, I can allow you to resign. We can honestly say we tried it and mutually agreed that this job wasn’t the right fit.
D: That sounds better.
Firing is poor community relations for the company, and employees don’t want a firing on their record. Mike allows Dan to exit with as much dignity and as little damage to his pride as possible.
M: I’ve asked payroll to continue your pay for three weeks.
D: Thank you. I’ll need that.
Mike shares responsibility for the hiring mistake and arranges some assistance to Dan in what is one of life’s most difficult times.
M: I’d like to stay friends and keep up with how you’re doing. And I’m sure your friends here would enjoy seeing you periodically.
D: What will you tell them about this?
M: Only that you and I discussed it, agreed that the job is probably not the right fit, and you’ve resigned to look for something else. They’re your friends and I believe they’ll understand and wish the best for you.
D: It would be nice to stay friends.
Mike prefers to accumulate friends and not enemies. We live in the same community with previous employees, often all our lives.
M: I’ll help you gather your things.
Mike keeps the conversation short and avoids discussion of details and reasons as they would serve no useful purpose.
Terminations are less stressful when done at the end of a work day, after most others have left. It’s embarrassing for a fired employee to walk through an active work area, gather personal items, and say goodbye to friends, especially if he’s visibly emotional.
The situation is uncomfortable for coworkers, too, who, although typically aware of the need for termination (and wondering what took us so long), still feel sympathy for their fired coworker.
Firing someone suddenly, or when we haven’t provided continuous performance feedback, is more difficult. The employee is sometimes surprised to hear his performance was unsatisfactory, upset that he wasn’t given a chance to improve, and angry at being fired without warning. (Termination lawsuits are often due more to poor communication than to impropriety.)
Firing an Employee Who Doesn’t Expect It
Ed has had multiple confrontations with coworkers, including a large one this week that has made the work environment stressful. Since Ed will be surprised, Mike arranges for Tom to stand by. Just before quitting time Mike asks Ed to come to his office.
M: Ed, I’m sorry but it just isn’t working out for you here.
E: What do you mean it isn’t working out?
M: You don’t seem happy here, Ed, and your confrontations with your coworkers are creating a difficult environment. We need to part company.
Because Mike hasn’t discussed this problem with Ed previously, he offers the reason—but concisely. He doesn’t offer or argue the specifics since it wouldn’t solve anything, would likely escalate emotions, and might create legal problems.
In employment-at-will areas, no explanation for firing is necessary—a company can simply choose to stop employing a worker. In areas that require a reason for termination, it should be stated as concisely and as non-confrontationally as possible.
E: You’re firing me?! Where does that come from?! That’s bulls--t! You’ve got no reason to fire me! None of those arguments were my fault!
M: I’m sorry, Ed. I hope you’ll be able to find a job you’ll enjoy and excel in.
E: You can’t hold it against me that I told Amy she wasn’t doing her job! She wasn’t! And when they don’t do their work, I can’t do mine. I can tell you that nobody could do that job by himself! There should be three people doing it.
M: I know it’s a big job.
Mike is patient but careful to avoid a debate.
E: Why are you singling me out?! Haley comes in late every other day, Ann calls in sick at least once a week, and Will doesn’t know what he’s doing.
M: I’m sorry that this has taken you by surprise, Ed.
E: Why me?! I just can’t accept this. It’s not right!
M: I understand you’re upset.
Mike is correct—Ed is angry because he didn’t expect it. Being fired unexpectedly is traumatic and sure to raise emotions; Ed isn’t likely to settle down quickly.
E: You’re damn right I’m upset. I’ve got bills to pay and a family to support.
M: I understand. I’ve arranged a severance package for you.
E: [Sarcastically] Thanks a lot.
M: I’m sorry, Ed. Tom and I will help you gather your things.
Obviously, firing is much easier when we’ve been communicating regularly and the employee knows how they’re doing. It gives them a chance to improve or find more appropriate work, often avoiding the need for firing altogether.
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