The Secret to Firing with Compassion

By September 25, 2018 Leadership

Whether you’re a new manager or a seasoned executive, firing an employee is never easy. As hard as it is to let someone go, however, letting them stay in a role that is not a fit – or in which they are consistently underperforming – does longer term damage to your company, the team members who have to pick up the slack, and, ultimately, to the employee.

So, you’ve made the decision to let someone go. What do you do now?

First Things First… Check That You’ve Met All Legal Requirements

Laws regarding termination vary from state to state. Consult with your HR manager – or HR consultant or lawyer – to understand the laws that apply to you. Ideally your company has created “termination guidelines” that you can follow. Make sure you know what you should – and should not – say to avoid risks of wrongful termination suits.

Even in an “at will” state such as California, if the employee falls within a protected class, it may be extra important to document the actions you have taken to help them improve their performance, and the factors leading to the termination.

Give Fair Warning and a Chance to Improve

While some terminations are immediate – in response to gross misconduct, for example – the more typical scenario is that it has been brewing for some time.

Ideally you have already discussed their poor performance or failure to meet expectations, and revisited their progress over a period of time. You’ve reiterated the company’s expectations of their role, and given them a chance to improve (such as a Performance Improvement Plan). If the decision to terminate is based on the employee’s failure to meet those expectations, or lack of suitability for the role, it will not come as a shock.

Choose a Private Setting

This may sound obvious, but in the modern world of open plan workspaces and glass-walled offices, privacy can require forethought. Your employee may have an intense emotional response… Accord them dignity and respect by giving them a private, unexposed setting.

Have another (appropriate) person present – your HR manager if you have one, or a senior colleague. As well as providing “moral support”, it provides a witness in the event of a wrongful termination claim.

If your employee works remotely, this may be more challenging still. However, do your best to have the conversation in person rather than virtually.

Timing…

This will depend largely on whether the termination will take immediate effect. If so, it’s generally recommended to do it on a Tuesday or Wednesday, to give the employee the chance to contact recruiters and start looking for another position. 

However, if they will continue to work in their position for some time after receiving notice, Friday may be better. This gives them the weekend to process their emotions privately.

Preparation

As well as making sure you have planned for the most conducive timing and setting, and you have arranged to have another person present, we recommend that you write down the main points that you want to cover. This ensures you don’t get thrown off by the employee’s emotional response and say – or not say – something that may cause you legal problems down the road.

Go through these with your executive coach or a trusted advisor, even role-playing the conversation so that you are prepared.

The Conversation

This is the part that everyone with a heart dreads. It can be tempting to sugar-coat or procrastinate. Don’t. Be direct, clear and succinct.

Remember, in most cases, the termination is because of a mismatch between the requirements of the role/company, and the strengths/capacities of the employee. There is nothing “wrong” with that person, but rather, this job is wrong for them.

Get straight to the point. You can frame the conversation this way:  

  1. The company and/or role requires X.
  2. The employee’s strengths and capacities are Y (i.e., not X).
  3. Despite efforts to support the employee to meet the expectations of the role, they have not done so.
  4. Therefore this decision has been made.

Make Sure Termination Details are Clear

Present the terms of the termination clearly. If you are offering options to the employee, ensure each is understood.

Important details to include:  

  • Date termination takes effect
  • Severance package compensation
  • Any legal requirements (such as waiver of right to sue)
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Your willingness to provide a good reference

Be Compassionate But Firm

While sugar-coating is not helpful, there is room for you to authentically express your own disappointment that the relationship has not worked out. If the employee becomes angry or emotional, acknowledge their feelings, be kind, but do not engage in a back and forth about “why” this is happening. Here is an example:

“I imagine this is hard to hear, and I wish it could be different. But I’m confident you will find a better fit for your strengths and skillset.”

After delivering the salient information, focus on their strengths and interests – and what might be a better fit for them. Acknowledge the work that they have done well, and their service to the company.

While it won’t necessarily soften the blow, focusing on the mismatch of this person’s strengths or priorities with the requirements of the role is more empowering and honors them as an individual. In most cases, on some level, they will also know it is true.

Follow Up

You made it through the hard part. The next step is to notify your team of the employee’s departure to mitigate any uncertainty or fall-out. Again, consult with HR for guidelines and protocols. In general, however, your goal is to convey enough basic information to your staff without going into detail.

You can offer the general reason of “fit” or “mismatch” as discussed above. Ideally you can make the announcement in a team or all-hands meeting, but invite them to approach you privately if they have questions or concerns. It is also a good time to reassure your remaining team members that you value them, and that their positions are secure.

Finally…

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Firing someone can be stressful. Give yourself the support and time you need to debrief. Seek support from your coach or a trusted confidante. And refocus on the knowledge that letting someone go, when they are not the right fit for the job, is the kindest thing for everyone.

According to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, “When you fire someone, you create the possibility for the person to excel and find happiness performing meaningful work elsewhere.”

Download our Guide with Tips for Better, More Insightful One-on-Ones. In it, you’ll learn how to get more out of your conversations, make sure others feel heard, and express your opinions and suggestions in line with the needs of others.

Download Our Guide to Active Listening

Author Cameron Yarbrough

Cameron is the Co-founder and CEO of Torch Leadership Labs. In this capacity, Cameron heads up business development, sales, and marketing, and defines Torch’s strategic vision. He brings 15 years of entrepreneurial experience to his role as CEO, along with a deep background in mindfulness and psychotherapy.

More posts by Cameron Yarbrough

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