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Nine tips for how to fire someone

Letting someone go may be the most impactful few minutes of that person's life. Managers should know how to do it the right way.

"This may be the most impactful few minutes of someone’s life - and I have no idea how to deal with it."

The above was part of an email sent to me about seven years ago.  I remembered it recently when an author interviewed me while looking for ideas and suggestions for a book she's writing on management best practices.  It's a fact of life that many organizations that do some training so well rarely provide solid assistance on this front.

Before I launched what is now a global coaching network in 2001, I had been a senior leader in several companies throughout North America. I’d also led a startup with only a few dozen employees, and then created a franchise chain where we had to train “newbies” how to act like a leader in their own businesses. I've overseen the hiring, promotions, downsizing and firing of over 3,000 people.  Fortunately, I learned how to handle these issues from some really good human relations experts.

The subject of "terminations" comes up occasionally with clients. Bosses who see themselves as "firm-but-fair," as well as those who have reputations for being "tough-minded," ask me for help get through the process.   ere are the tips and tactics I recommend:

1.  Make an appointment with the person who is being let go - something like, "Bob, I'd like to meet with you today at (…several hours from now).  The subject is you, and it's important."  Use facial expressions or voice tone to indicate the solemnity of this meeting. If asked what the meeting is about, tell them you can’t get into it now.

This helps the individual get his/her head around the fact that this isn't going to be great news. It will cause them to think about all the possible outcomes of the meeting. While it may seem harsh to leave them dangling for an hour or two, the fact is it’s better that they arrive with a clear understanding that this isn’t going to be a pleasant meeting.

It also treats the individual with some respect. Those who just call someone in unexpectedly are being callous chickens, hoping to get the thing over with and are more concerned about their own feelings.

2.  If appropriate, have someone from HR involved.  If you can have an HR rep in the meeting with you or waiting elsewhere, it allows the person being terminated to talk afterward with the HR person who can explain things like final pay, ongoing health benefits, that will become very important to the individual.

Additionally, it reduces the chances that the firing manager is going to get any backlash (legally or internally) as a result of the way (s) he handled this challenging process.

3.  When the person being terminated arrives in the office at the appointed time, he/she is going to suspect that something serious is about to happen.

Whether or not (s)he does, start by saying something short and to the point to help them get their head around it: "Shirley, we are about to have a very tough discussion about your situation, please sit down."

4. Let the individual have a seat. Now look them in the eyes. This is a big deal - there's another human being across the table from you. Even if this meeting is just one in a series of layoffs you have to do, being human at this time will make a huge difference to them after they've left and recall how this was handled.  And they will recall how it was handled - perhaps for years.

5.  Start your talk with the end:  "We are letting you go effective today."  Too often bosses try to explain why or how things got to this point.  But human nature is such that the other guy is already defensive and may even try to justify past issues.  So just say it.

6. Now: Shut up for 30 seconds. Let her/him swallow what you just said. Talking while the message is being processed doesn't help, and it can hinder the person's ability to process what was said and to get through this moment.

7.  If it's reasonable (and if HR doesn't prohibit it), tell the person you are sorry it came to this. As one human being to another. Yes, you’re the boss, but you can show some feeling.

8. No debate - If he or she wants to argue or ask questions try to avoid it. The decision has been made and the termination has now been done, his or her job is gone.  There's nothing to be gained by getting into the why's or wherefores and, - this is important - you could unintentionally say something that may come back and bite you.

9.  The Close - Stand and shake hands. Tell the person to clean up his desk and go to see HR or come back in a while to discuss departure procedures.

Above all, act like a human being. One day it may be you on the other side of the desk and you'd appreciate being treated like one, right?

- John

Executive Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

33 comments
Sean Mulholland
Sean Mulholland

Incredible that there is no reference to conferring with security professionals prior to the termination. Does the employee have a prospensity for violence? Gun permit? Google Episcopal High School Jacksonville Florida to learn the tragic consequences of not considerring security contingencies prior to termination.

jayohem
jayohem

Many years ago I got a job with an insurance man in Monterey, CA. One of his agents told me she thought I'd do OK, but just remember never to ask the man for a raise. A few years previously, his office manager had asked for a raise. (That's what everybody says to do, right?) At the end of the day, the boss walked out to the front office, told the employee she had done a wonderful job and was sorry she wasn't happy. Then he handed her a check for two weeks pay and thanked her for her services adding he wouldn't be needing them anymore.

mradicke
mradicke

So RIGHT on all counts. As an IT manager who also has responsibility for HR (for 20 years), I can definitely tell you that the advice in this article is sound, and that if you handle future terminations this way, you and the terminated employee will both benefit. To the person who thought the article should address avoiding terminations, that wasn't the topic of the article. The purpose of the article was to offer some suggestions for doing terminations correctly once they've been deemed necessary--for whatever reason. Avoiding terminations in the first place is a whole other subject. To the person who wants to discuss all the reasons for the termination, you are SO wrong. NEVER do this. This makes it harder for all concerned. Certainly, if the termination is for cause you will state the reason, but NEVER, EVER get into a discussion about it. The decision has been made, move on. When these kinds of discussions get going, they lead to recriminations, apologies, begging, crying, cursing, violence, and statements by managers that get companies sued. Stay away. John, thanks for a great article.

bgoodgion
bgoodgion

If you tell the person 'about to have a very tough discussion', then at least attempt that process! There is no debate (a final decision is already made), but there needs to be discussion of various issues that have already been pointed out. In any large organization, it's usually requisite that an HR representative be present; at least it's highly recommended. Most employees will value this 'closure' process, even if it's a situation beyond the control of those immediately involved (corporate restructuring, etc.) and was and expected outcome. I believe that, depending on the circumstances, employee questions can be anticipated and answers prepared; HR will certainly help to field some of them. If a reasonable questions arise for which an answer is not immediately available, then it may be appropriate to promise a follow-up letter or email with that information. Just because the employee is being terminated does not necessarily mean parting has to be on unpleasant terms, although certain circumstances sometimes warrant that outcome as well.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Send them an email with this is important in it to set up the discussion. So aside from a potential drop in performance due to worry, you can get a bit more work out of them before you kick their arse out of the door? Wait 30 seconds was good Dont' get into a disccussion because you might let something (commonly known as the truth) slip, good pragmatic advice. The rest of it, an attempt to make the process of firing as painless as possible for the manager.

Techtoo
Techtoo

The rest? I just can't agree with any. Especially the point about not allowing questions or not giving an explaining is downright unprofessional. If you are not going to let the employee ask questions, then why start the meeting with " ...we are about to have a very tough discussion about your situation" ? Where is the discussion? Maybe the first one to let go is the one who drafted this policy.

steve_clarke
steve_clarke

Just to say, that if you follow these steps in the UK, you'd find yourself in front of an Industrial Tribunal quicker than you can say "Performance Management" with the judgement going against you and you'd probably be fired too... Best first step in the UK: Consult with HR, go from there. And then, unless its gross misconduct, you're going to need comprehensive documentation showing a good level of performance management. If you've not got internal HR, go to an external HR consultant.

viveka
viveka

If an organization follows these steps, they should stop lamenting the fact that employee loyalty and morality is dying! Where is the compassion, the understanding, etc. While running a business is not a charity and involves letting people go, it does not mean it needs to have a clean surgical procedure or response to a highly emotional situation. Being fired (except for disciplinary reasons) is a separation, not an end of life process - the employee is not in hospice. The way one is fired speaks volumes of a company's culture. A company's culture is how it acts in tough situations, and not in how it runs its day to day operations. And any HR who recommends this need to go back to their certifications and re-do their OB/OD/Psychology!

macmanjim
macmanjim

#1 seems passive-aggressive and in fact, I sense that in general with the article. It's as if there was nothing that led up to this and you had to drop it on the employee out of the blue.

observer-shadow
observer-shadow

In California, employment is described as "at will". Meaning either party, employee or employer, can terminate the relationship at any time. There is no obligation for either to continue participation. Having said that, I wouldn't be surprised if the 9 steps outlined here didn't result in a meltdown of some sort. "Shirley, we are about to have a very tough discussion about your situation, please sit down", would surely (no pun intended!) light the fuse.

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

Bollocks. There will be no discussion. Be sure to add, especially if you have never been downsized, rightsized, made redundant, etc. that you "know how hard this must be for you."

m.mccarthy
m.mccarthy

1) I'm assuming that if it is for performance reasons, you've already provided the person with feedback along the way, opportunities to improve, etc. It really should never be a surprise. 2) I would absolutely NOT tell them hours ahead of time that we 're going to have a scary discussion. They would not be able to concentrate, they're just going to worry, and probably distract the rest of your team as well with speculation. 3) I really like the wording "we're about to have a really tough discussion about your situation." 4) And I like the advice to be quiet for 30 seconds. It will feel like a lifetime, but it's so important to let it sink in and let them respond. 5) I disagree with having them pack up their office right away. I'd let them leave for the rest of the day, and then arrange for them to be able to pick up their things when others aren't in the office. Can't you imagine how uncomfortable and humiliating that would be? 6)Lastly, of course you need to have their access privileges revoked - right before the meeting. I think that you probably had some of these assumptions in your mind when you wrote this but just didn't include them. Thanks for the thought provoking article! Mary I disagree with some of the statements in this article, but good for you for putting it out there. There is some solid advice.

#1bobcat
#1bobcat

If you are doing your job as a Manager/Supv. it shouldn't be a huge surprise that someone is being let go for performance issues. There should have been several discussions regarding performance and mutually agreed upon performance improvement plans created and monitored. If it is being done for budgetary reasons (downsizing) there probably have been a number of signals that most employees will pick up on. In that case, you had some reason for choosing that person to go, seniority, performance, location.

hug.login
hug.login

"Nine tips for how to fire someone" sound as sensible as "Nine tips for how to execute someone". Firing someone in this way wouldn't work in my country unless the person has comitted a serious offense or theft. If a lay-off cannot be avoided it's definitely the line manager who has to have this conversation. At least in my company the line manager hires the workers and not HR, hence he needs to have this conversation! HR or a superior manager can be involved depending on the reason for lay-off, legal reasons or depending on the line managers maturity handling such a case professionally. There is no reason to leave a bad impression to the person who get's layed off. Who would benefit from that? You never know whether you can or want to hire this person again, unless the person was a real underperformer or something bad happend! Giving out such tips to an unexperienced line manager is, in my view, irresponsible and will create new legions of a**hole bosses.

diman75
diman75

Meeting with an employee, what meeting? Do you know how it happens in real life? Our department gets a call from the V.P. : "Could you guys disable an account, his or her services are no longer needed". Sometimes it happens and a person doesn't even know, it happen to our director of marketing, she got fired and didn't even know, she tried to log on to her Outlook web-app from home in the morning, only to find out that her account is disabled so she called us:" Is there a problem?" And we were like, uummmm, no, we just got a call from the V.P. to disable your account, so she had to call him to clarify why and she found out. This is how it happens in real life in a big company.

dvanduse
dvanduse

You can't let them know before hand. Do you know how much damage an IT Person can do if they suspect they are being fired. If it has gotten to that point, it's not like they won't have some idea as to what is about to happen.

bpauls50
bpauls50

Where is any discussion on how to avoid the cost of terminating someone and counseling them on how to be a better employee that meets the company's expections.? This column is wrong on so many levels, but to start: 1) It is not at all respectful to make an appointment and refuse to acknowledge the reason for the meeting.Why create the prolonged stress and speculation? Punishment? 2) Always have HR involved and present. 3) The employer has an OBLIGATION to explain why the dismissal is occurring. To not say is cowardice. Its worse to make up a false reason. 4) You don't tell the person to clean therir desk. You just fired them! Ask them with courtesy to do so, but supervise the process.

philhall
philhall

Well done, John--love the points made and the reasoning. Great tips for what is always a tough situation.

ochronus
ochronus

Sorry but this is just plain wrong. Of course if the decision is made, there's no place for debate, but everyone deserves an explanation! Listen to the questions and only fend them off if they go into wrong directions. Managers should give a good and clear explanation about the reason(s) the other person is getting fired. If the person did anything wrong they should know about it and maybe do better in their next job. If it wasn't them, only structural changes, etc. they should also know it not to blame themselves. I think it's essential.

JamesRL
JamesRL

The supervisor should not get off that easy. I've fired people. I've been laid off. It is never easy. It shouldn't be.

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

Some organizations believe that it's better to leave the team boss out of it and that only HR should deal with any terminations. What do you think?

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

Thanks for sharing your perspective as an HR leader. I think it will help many of those who read this blog. - John

eclypse
eclypse

When we let someone go from our department (IT) - and thankfully, it is a _very_ rare occasion - all root and other admin passwords are changed prior to meeting with that person. As soon as they are notified of their meeting, their accounts are disabled and their computer is shut down. We do similar things when non-IT employees are let go - especially someone with a high level of access or access to sensitive data. Even though many computer crimes involving data destruction are felonies, that doesn't really help restore your systems or data once the damage is done. The person might go to prison, but your data is still broken. If it happened to me, I would be totally mad (I mean, I'm not a robot or a Vulcan), but it is the obvious right thing for the organization to do to protect itself and its data. You really never know how someone is going to react to being let go.

eclypse
eclypse

This article is plainly stated to be about how to fire someone properly - not how to avoid it.

aflynnhpg
aflynnhpg

I believe you are confusing debating a decision with offering reasons behind the decision. You do not want to get into an argument over the decision. You should provide them with reasons if applicable. Sometimes it's simply an "at will" separation. Whatever the reason the basis for the decision should be given to the person but you should not argue with them. I agree with the author, if the person wants to argue, you should avoid it, simply tell them the decision has been made, we are not here to debate it, we are simply telling you about the decision.

blarman
blarman

I think one thing many people are overlooking is that there are really only two reasons to lay someone off: the company is downsizing (no fault of employee) or the person isn't performing. If it is the latter, you should have had a review with the person to indicate to them where their performance wasn't up to muster and given them specific goals and a timeframe in which to improve or move on. There should be a follow-up meeting scheduled during the review for the express purpose of determining whether the individual has improved enough to stay on, and both of you should know going into the meeting whether or not the goals were met. The point is this: firing someone should not come as a surprise to either you or them if it is performance-related. If you aren't having regular meetings with your employees to assess performance and set goals, you should be. If they consistently aren't hitting their goals (and make sure the goals are realistic), you need to lay out the consequences for such and set a timeline. Do this and layoffs for employee performance don't have to be a huge shock, and you will have demonstrated you've done all you can for the employee. There won't be any excuses or complaints because the results will be there for both of you to see how they failed to measure up.

m.mccarthy
m.mccarthy

I agree, but stick to solid comments that tie back to performance feedback that you have already provided to the employee. This is another area where you really need to be prepared.

sissy sue
sissy sue

It would be cowardly on the part of the manager to not provide the person being fired with an explanation. And I would NOT want HR in the room with me if I were being fired by my manager. That, once again, I would consider that cowardly of the firing manager, and I would be humiliated that I was considered so insecure, so immature, and so defensive that another person was needed to play foil to the firing manager.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Call it what you like bollocks, minerals, intestinal fortitude, courage .... A key point completely missing from your post. What is the purpose of firing / letting someone go. The why should be clear, and it should be obvious to all those who haven't been fired (yet ??) If you can't articulate a sensible one (and yes we are bleeding money and can't see any other way to cut our costs is a sensible one), then save more money and fire everybody involved in making the decision in the first place...

panelshop
panelshop

......... handle dismissals (especially if the employee is a screw-up), they usually hired the person. I do think though that the manager or supervisor should be available afterwards if needed.

JamesRL
JamesRL

At one large corporation where I worked, the IT manager received a note in the morning if anyone was being laid off or fired. It gave that person the time the meeting with Management/HR would take place. The computer access would be locked down 5 minutes after the meeting was to start. I have seen one scene where someone reacted very very badly. When they were escorted back to their cubicle to get their things they threw items. I'm glad her computer was locked down at that point. On the other hand when I was laid off ten years back, my supervisor escorted me to my office, helped me pack, offered to let me download any personal files I needed etc. He helped me carry boxes of stuff to my car. We are still friends ten years later, and I wrote a recommendation for him when he was laid off recently.

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

Not true. A third reason is the boss does not like the employee.

JamesRL
JamesRL

It has been standard practise at the last three companies I've worked at, that an HR representative be present during the meeting. It isn't because they think employees are weak, or that the manager is cowardly. It is because there are a number of steps that need to happen that involve HR. HR can explain the options around severence package choices, and when those decisions have to be made. At my employer, there is also someone from an outplacement agency there to meet with the employee to explain their programs, but they meet with the employee after the first meeting, and typically its the HR person who takes them to the outplacement person and introduces them. There is another element of course to having HR in the room, its to ensure that the firing manager fulfills all the elements, and doesn't say anything that could lead to a lawsuit later. As to the issue of why, you have to define "fired". Many companies prefer to lay people off instead of firing, and in that case there doesn't need to be a cause other than cost issues within the company. If they are being fired for performance, it should not be the first time performance is raised as an issue. If they are being fired for violating corporate policy, that should be explained briefly, but not debated.