How to Fire an Employee

Firing a staff member is one of the hardest parts of a manager’s job. But it’s also one of the most important, because having the right people – and only the right people – on your team will make a huge difference in how effective you are and how much you’re able to accomplish. In fact, even if you do every other part of management right (setting clear goals, delegating effectively, giving useful feedback, etc.), if you aren’t willing to fire people when they need to go, you’ll never accomplish what you otherwise could.

But because it’s tough to tell someone that they’re falling short of your expectations, and even tougher to let them go, most managers wait far too long to take action when it’s clear that someone needs to be replaced. Instead of addressing the problem, they put it off, or send coded messages rather than being clear, or just hope the person leaves on their own.

Don’t be that manager. You’ll be less effective and your strong employees will become frustrated that the problem isn’t being solved. Instead, use these eight keys to handling terminations fairly and compassionately.

1. A firing should (almost) never come as a surprise. Ideally, a firing should be the final installment in a conversation that has been ongoing. The employee has been clearly told about the problems and what needs to change, warned that the progress isn’t what it needs to be, and explicitly told that his or her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don’t occur. When the termination conversation happens, it’s more of a wrap-up than anything else; it shouldn’t be a surprise.

There are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, punching someone. But that’s not the case for the vast majority of terminations.

2. Prepare. This is not a conversation you should ever wing, no matter how experienced you are. Just like you’d create talking points for any other important meeting, outline the points you’ll need to make in this situation and figure out how you’ll present them. Don’t just trust yourself to find the right words in the moment; this is how people often flub sensitive conversations.

3. Be direct. Start the conversation off with your decision. Some managers try to ease into the news, thinking it will soften the blow. But that leaves the employee sitting there thinking she’s supposed to be defending herself, when in fact you’re past that point. It’s unkind to make the person think she can sway your opinion if she can’t, so let her know up front what decision you’ve made.

How to do that? Lead off with something like: “This is a tough conversation to have. When we met several weeks ago, we discussed the fact that if you didn’t meet the benchmarks we laid out, we wouldn’t be able to keep you on. Unfortunately, although I know you have been trying, we’re now at that point and have decided to let you go. I know this is hard, and I want to do whatever I can to make it as easy as possible on you.”

4. Be honest. Sometimes a manager will come up with a “cover story” for the firing, thinking the real reason will hurt the employee’s feelings. Sometimes a manager will do this because she hasn’t been direct enough with the employee about the problems earlier and has avoided tough conversations about performance issues. Now that the person needs to be fired, the manager is in the position of explaining a decision the person had no warning of. (See #1 and don’t put yourself in this position, which is tremendously unfair to the employee. If a manager has problems with an employee that the employee doesn’t know about, the problem is with the manager.)

Do not under any circumstances lie. You may need to speak about the reason for the firing in the paperwork for the employee’s future unemployment claim or even in litigation — and if what you say doesn’t match what the employee was told, you’ll be facing problems.

5. Be compassionate. Acknowledge this is hard and that you’re sorry this is the outcome, and allow your tone and body language to convey compassion. And keep in mind that even if you’ve been incredibly frustrated with the employee, now that your decision has been made, there’s no reason not to allow yourself to feel and express genuine compassion for what’s inescapably a horrible outcome for the person.

When at all possible, try to truly believe this is a case of a bad fit, rather than that the employee is incompetent, unmotivated, or difficult. If you go into the meeting with this mindset, it will change the way you come across, helping to defuse the situation and helping the employee keep his or her dignity.

6. Make it clear your decision is final. If the employee tries to change your mind, don’t enter into prolonged discussion, which can unfairly make the employee think the decision is up for debate. Keep the conversation relatively short and be prepared to say something like, “I realize that we see this differently, but the decision is final.”

7. Keep your own manager in the loop. Once you start to think that a staff member’s performance issues are serious enough that firing is a real possibility, talk to your own manager about it. You don’t want her to be blindsided by your decision.

8. Afterwards, debrief with your manager or a someone else you trust. Take an honest look at whether there’s anything you can learn from the situation. Whenever you have to let someone go, it’s a good to idea to use the situation as a trigger for reflecting on whether you could have done things differently. For instance: Could you have interviewed differently to spot the problems before making the hire? Did you lay out clear expectations from the start and address problems as soon as you noticed them?  Some terminations will always be unavoidable, but be sure you’re asking questions to learn from them.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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