“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