How to Fire Someone (Preparing for and Carrying out a Difficult Conversation)

Let’s talk about one of the most difficult things that you’ll ever need to do as a manager – letting someone go. None of us ever wants to do it and we hope that we never will, but the chances are that you will at some point. At the very least, you may be part of the process and the best thing that you can do is to prepare for when that day comes.

We’ll start by talking about your preparation for the conversation that you’ll have and then move into how to carry out the conversation.

Have the right mindset

Before getting into the more practical steps that you need to keep in mind, let’s talk about the mindset that you need to take.

The key here is to own the process, take accountability and accept that you’re going to do something that someone isn’t going to like and will probably find very upsetting. Basically, accept that what you’re going to do is pretty horrible – your job is to make the process as least horrible as possible.

Ultimately, you want to look back on the process after everything is done and be proud of the way you completed it.

Yes, I know that the word “proud” is a bit jarring there, but it’s the correct one.

I’m not saying that you should take joy or happiness from firing someone. I am saying that you are allowed to be proud of the way that you carried out a very difficult task. You may even feel regret too – it’s always with regret when someone isn’t right for a role and you have to let them go.

But the key is to imagine how you’d want to feel after the process is finished. You want to be proud of yourself and therefore want to ensure that the process is carried out with efficiency, fairness and empathy.

Make the decision

The first thing that will need to be done is make the decision itself. In pretty much every situation I’ve faced when I or someone else in my team has asked “should we let this person go?” – the answer has been yes. The fact that the question is being asked in the first place almost certainly means that it’s a yes.

Of course, you should do your best to ensure it is the right decision, but when you ask yourself (or someone else) this for the first time, you need to get to the decision as quickly as possible.

Act quickly

Once you have made the decision, you should act as quickly as possible. Dragging things out isn’t going to help you because the decision will hang over you and take up a lot more headspace than you ever expected. During this time, you simply won’t be as effective as usual in your day-to-day role as a leader. In particular, you’ll spend more time and headspace on the person you’re letting go of instead of with your remaining, high performing team members.

Get legal and/or HR advice

Not only is it important to get the process itself right in terms of how you treat the individual, but you need to ensure that you’re doing what you need to do from a legal or HR perspective as well. The rights of the individual and the responsibilities of you as the employer will differ based on your local laws. So at the very least, ensure that you understand these laws so that you protect both yourself and the individual.

Plan your communication and reasoning

It’s vital that you are able to clearly and succinctly communicate the reasons for letting someone go. It’s the very least that they need from you during this process. It can be easy to think that you’re doing them a favour by keeping a conversation brief or sparing their feelings by not talking about the reasons for letting them go. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Take time to lay out the reasons why you’ve come to this decision and pull out the core themes. Add some context and examples to each core theme and this becomes your rough agenda.

You should also prepare a list of logistical things you must do, such as collecting equipment or security passes. Then go through these quickly and as privately as possible with them.

Now that we’ve covered preparation, let’s move into how to carry out the conversation itself.

Remember, we’re trying to make a horrible process as least horrible as possible.

Choose an appropriate time and location

This can be a tricky one because sometimes, location and time are dictated for you. But where possible, keep a couple of things in mind:

  • If doing this face to face, choose a meeting room that is private.
  • Try to have the conversation early in the day and allow them to go home straight away – avoid letting them work all day when you know what you’re about to do.
  • Help them collect any belongings they have in the office.
  • Ensure that they can get home okay once they leave.

Again, not all of these are within your control, but do what you can to make the process as smooth and painless for them as possible.

Choose the appropriate language

There is never going to be a perfect language to use when you need to deliver the news that someone is losing their job. It’s not a nice job to do, and even if someone is expecting it, it’s never going to be a fun conversation.

At the same time, there are certainly ways to do it that can help minimise the negative effects and emotions that someone is going to feel in this situation. You should try to strike a balance between being clear with your language and softening the blow was much as possible.

Here are a few ways you can ensure you do.

  • Use past tense: you don’t want to create the impression that there is a way back here or that someone can ask for a second chance. For example, saying ‘we’ve ended your employment here’ vs. ‘we’re going to end your employment here’. You’re saying the same thing, but the latter implies that the decision may not have been fully made yet.
  • Avoid minimising their feelings: they are probably going to feel upset and maybe angry. Understand that this is completely normal and understandable, so don’t try to soften the blow by saying things like ‘I know that this is hard for you’ or ‘this is for the best.’ It won’t feel like either of these things at this moment and won’t make them feel any better.
  • It’s not about you: no matter how hard you find this conversation, never say anything that refers to this. This conversation is not about you. It’s about them and you need to temporarily put aside how bad you feel or how uncomfortable you are. Don’t say things such as ‘this is hard for me to do’ or ‘I find this difficult too’ because it’s not their concern to worry about your feelings.
  • Answer questions, but don’t get into a discussion: of course, the individual is likely to have some questions and may want to clarify your reasons for letting them go. Do take time to answer a couple of questions, but avoid getting into a full discussion with them. Focus on the core reason(s) that you’ve already provided and try not to deviate from them.
  • This isn’t a chance to air your personal grievances: this conversation is focused around a decision that the business has made to let someone go from their role. It isn’t a conversation about your personal grievances with the individual, so don’t take this as a chance to air them.

In terms of delivering the key line that someone is losing their job, there is no need to be mean here by blurting out ‘you’re fired’ or ‘you’re sacked’. These may provoke someone to react more negatively than they would have done otherwise.

Instead, you can achieve the same outcome by using words such as:

  • ‘Your employment here has ended’.
  • ‘We’ve decided to let you go’.
  • ‘Your job here has ended’.
  • ‘Today is your last day working here’.
  • ‘From today, you’re no longer working here’.

On a practical note, it’s also worth having some tissues handy in case the individual does get upset and needs them.

Clearly state next steps

At the end of the conversation, be clear about what happens next. You’ll need to cover a few practical things such as:

  • When they will be paid up until: some employers will pay the minimum required amount in their contract, whilst others will pay a little extra as severance pay. Whichever it is, tell them what will happen and when they can expect to be paid. Remember that you may have some legal responsibilities here too, so get advice if you need it.
  • What will happen with their equipment: if they have any equipment at home, tell them how you will arrange for it to be collected or returned to the company.
  • How they can collect any of their belongings: if they have any personal belongings or equipment in the office, let them know how they can collect them.
  • What will happen with their email and company accounts: if their accounts are already closed or will be closed straight away, tell them about this. Or if they have some time, let them know when they will be closed.
  • Tell them about any paperwork they need to read or sign: if you’re sending a letter of termination (your HR or legal team will advise and provide this), then tell them that this will happen and how they will receive it.

Calming a situation that escalates

Whilst you can do your best to conduct this conversation in a way that minimises the chances of it escalating and the individual becoming angry, you should prepare for this scenario and know how to handle it.

It’s hard to predict what will happen in this kind of situation, but here are a few ways that you can help the situation:

  • Give someone time: if someone is upset, don’t try to rush them to leave just so that you can exit the situation. If they are upset, the last thing they will want to do is leave the room and possibly be seen by others.
  • Offer to get them water: try to have some water handy and ask if you can get them a drink if they are struggling or starting to get upset.
  • Offer tissues: ensure that you have some tissues handy and if they get upset, give them some tissues to help.
  • Keep your own voice calm: if they are agitated and upset, don’t match their tone with your own. Keep your voice calm and avoid raising your voice.
  • Have colleagues available to assist: if appropriate, have a peer or senior or HR person in the room with you, especially if you’re worried about a situation escalating. If you are in the room on your own, make your peers aware so that they can be available to enter the room if you need any assistance.

It’s also worth noting that if the individual does become angry or you become fearful for your own safety, attract the attention of colleagues who you’ve already given a heads up to.

And that’s it. To wrap up, this is never a fun situation to find yourself in and it’s hard to predict how things will go. The best you can do is focus on what you can control, which is the way you carry out the process and treat the individual. Focus on this and you’ll do the best job that you can.

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