I’ve never had to do a lay-off or fire anyone before. Even though I know he’s not doing the job, I’m getting very upset about having to tell him that he’s being let go.”

Those words came from a client this week who is about to take action on an employee. She knows that the employee isn’t cutting it. His performance is below that of everyone else, he resists offers of help, and he has an attitude of entitlement. At the same time, the company where my client works is getting all kinds of resumes and job applications. It’s clear that there are a lot of individuals who appear to be much more enthusiastic and perhaps even better suited for this type of role.

“I’ve put this action off for too long. I know that it’s time to deal with this guy, but when I start thinking about putting him on street in this economy, I feel very bad. Is this normal? Should I proceed? Or hold off?

She was nervous, confused, and upset. It was clear that she’s never received training which would help her handle the work of firing someone or letting them go for other reasons. Unfortunately, her situation is fairly common; it seems that most organizations presume that, “when the time comes, our managers will know what to do.” That’s a pretty naive opinion. It’s also one that can result in a very poor outcome for both parties. In addition to needless hurt and sleeplessness, lawsuits can result as a result of the communications involved when people are let go.

Here’s what I told my client. They may help if the same thing happens at your place:

1. Setting the stage – I recommend scheduling this meeting. It will let the individual have a little self-reflection time before the discussion takes place. Rather than grabbing someone into your office or meeting room and then letting him/her go; telling them 30 minutes, or even a couple of hours beforehand, may help both of you be more ready for a potentially difficult talk.

In my client’s case, I suggested she simply tell the employee that she needed to have a serious conversation with him. Not a lot of detail but enough for the guy to know it was a different kind of meeting.

2. Experts and your “back-up” – If you have an HR leader or representative at your office(s) he should be there with you for the meeting. Determine what each of you will say, or do, in the meeting. If there is an information package for the individual who is leaving, l suggest that it be reviewed by the HR rep after you’ve delivered the bad news.
3. First impressions count – Decide beforehand where you want to be seated and also where you want the employee to sit. I suggest that you have a table or desk between you as opposed to sitting side by side. This formalizes the meeting to some extent and keeps physical and psychological distance between you.

4. Remember, this is another human being
– Most folks, when told that they’re being let go have all sorts of thoughts and feelings rushing over them during the actual conversation. It’s often almost a surreal experience for them – hearing words and reasons but also having thoughts concerning their future at the same time. So don’t just bombard them – treat them like you’d want to be treated in the same situation.

It’s a good idea to say to the person something like, “Hello, Bob. I want you to know that we’re about to have a very difficult conversation. So take a moment to steel yourself.” Let them grasp that this is going to be a bad news kind of meeting, take their chair and get themselves ready for the bomb that’s about to be dropped. In many cases, this is just going to confirm what they already expected to be happening. But if this is coming out of the blue; it’s simply decent to give them a bit of a heads-up.

4. KISS Principle– With a recognition that the individual will have all sorts of things swirling around in his head during this meeting, be as brief and too-the-point as possible. Many termination or layoff meetings take too long. They get into too much discussion from both sides of the table. Try to keep the message to the simple fact that the company (or you) has decided the relationship is not working and that it’s time to part company. Tell them the legitimate reasons for this decision, for example, performance problems, staff cutbacks due to the environment, or whatever is the reason.

Generally, it can be counterproductive to discuss the reasons behind the action for too long a time. More time might cause you to say something that you’ll regret. The meeting may become more personal than is of benefit for either party.

5. Hand off to HR – Once you’ve told the person he/she is leaving as directly and as succinctly as possible, let the HR person take over. They can explain what the employee will be given in terms of final pay or benefit continuance and other things. The dialog will be more “professional” coming from that source. It reduces the personal stuff between you and the employee.

If possible leave the room at this point. Make a comment like, “Now Sarah is going to review the details of your final pay and other benefits.”

6. Head held high – It’s OK to wish the person “good luck” and/or shake their hand when you leave. It will make you feel better, while helping reduce the friction for both parties.

I believe that personnel issues are the easiest issues most organizations face.

Here’s why: Financial issues, competitive issues, or product problems can often be outside of the control of the team leader. They can take years to overcome. Personnel issues are entirely within your control and can be dealt with in a very short time frame. Don’t postpone these. You’ll sleep better and the organization will be more likely to thrive if you do.


Leadership Coach