How to fire someone gracefully

At the end of the day, there’s no “right” way to fire an employee. But there are some steps you can take to make a difficult situation a bit more manageable. Here are a few tips on how to fire someone with grace and tact.

grok

October 09, 2021 · 6 min readPeople Management

Firing an employee can be a gut-wrenching decision for everyone involved.  

If you’re in a position where you have to let go of an employee, you’re probably sensitive to the impact it can have. But in your efforts to let them down easy, you could be making things worse. In addition to the threat of wrongful termination lawsuits, taking the wrong approach means you could be making the process even more emotionally taxing. 

At the end of the day, there’s no “right” way to fire an employee. But there are some steps you can take to make a difficult situation a bit more manageable. Here are a few tips on how to fire someone with grace and tact. 

1. Strengthen your case 

Before you start the termination process, you need to make sure you’re on solid legal ground. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in FY 2020 more than 67,000 employees filed for wrongful termination. This makes wrongful termination one of the most common lawsuits against employers. 

To make sure your reasoning is lawyer-proof, you can try pretending like you’re explaining the situation to a jury. Layout your reasoning, provide the facts, and deliver your points calmly. If you have a policy that outlines expectations for employees, be prepared to use that to back up any transgressions.

2. Keep it quick ‌

Now is not the time to make small talk or beat around the bush. As soon as you sit down with your employee, you need to deliver the news. 

If you try to ease into it with small talk or other pleasantries, all you’ll be doing is dragging out the distress for your employee. In total, the talk should take no more than 10 minutes — and you should be delivering the news within the first few seconds.

3. Avoid open-ended statements ‌

Once you’ve dropped the bomb, then it’s time to state the reason for termination in a few quick sentences. When you do, be mindful of your language. 

Instead of saying “your employment will be terminated,” say “your employment has been terminated.” If your statements are too open-ended, you might find yourself drawn into a conversation or argument, where the employee tries to argue their case. Make it clear from the very first sentence this is a decision that has already been made — it’s not up for debate.

4. Don’t try to soften the blow 

Firing an employee can be an emotional moment. You might find yourself trying to soften the blow with statements like: 

  • “This was a difficult decision” 

  • “I really don’t want to do this” 

  • “I know that this hurts” 

  • “I’m sorry” 

  • “I know how you feel” 

While you can show compassion for an upset employee, it’s important to keep your own emotions in check. You might want to be a shoulder to cry on, but most people won’t want to be comforted by someone who just fired them. 

John Stieger, the chief marketing officer of Wilke Global, advises that the “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation can be a dangerous game. “You can easily muddy the waters,” he said in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “[By] confusing people and opening potential legal liability in an attempt to make someone feel better and maybe even shift blame away from yourself.”

The bottom line 

Firing someone gracefully isn’t something you can do off the cuff. Most terminations that go wrong are due to a manager who speaks without thinking things through. Before the final meeting, write up a basic script of what you need to get through. Go over the statement of termination, the reason for their firing, and any relevant information about severance, final paychecks, and clearing out the office. 

The most important thing you can do is remember what you’re there for. This decision is in the best interest of the team and the company overall. Showing empathy can help, but sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is stick to your script and get straight to the point.

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