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7 Keys to the Least Worst Way to Fire Someone

Have you decided that it is (or that it may be) time to fire someone? There’s no best way. Firing people sucks. Dark topic… I hope to shed some light.

And to mix a metaphor, this article will give you the key — heck, 7 keys — to the least worst way to go about this unpleasant and sometimes necessary task.

And many of you find yourself in the unpleasant position of having to fire someone in your employ.

The Problem When You Fire Someone

If you’ve decided it’s time to unilaterally part ways with one of your employees, you’ve likely put it off for too long. That’s very common. Firing someone who’s been working for you — whether for a week or for a decade — is painful, intimidating, scary. You’re about to sever someone from an important community of coworkers and from their livelihood. It’s hard for good reason. I’m glad you don’t take it lightly. You shouldn’t. There are too many examples in the news of cavalier layoffs.

And, there’s no way around it. For most of us, firing people sucks. There’s the compassion you feel for the team member for whom it will probably not feel like good news — and there’s the liability issue that scares a lot of leaders away from taking the action to fire someone.

The risks involved with firing someone are many:

  • You may hurt their feelings — likely will.
  • You may not be able to keep it together entirely yourself.
  • This may make waves with the rest of the team. This is especially scary if the person in question is popular. (Often others have been waiting and hoping for them to go. High performers like to be around other high performers.).
  • The someone you fire may make a scene either in person in the workplace or out there in the indelible internet.
  • They may steal or sabotage on their way out (one of our client’s sales rep recently deleted all contacts from his company phone before turning it over).
  • They may call an attorney and put you on the pointy end of a wrongful termination suit.
  • You’ll almost certainly lose institutional knowledge.
  • And when you fire someone, your team — already stretched with their workload — will have to pick up the slack.

And still, you’ve decided it’s time for your company to move on without this person. You’ve decided you’ll all be better off. And you’ve decided it’s time to suck up the courage and rip off the band aid.

So I want to help you be confident that you’ve got a solid plan for how to do this in ways that a) preserve your reputation, b) preserve that person’s dignity, c) make your team proud and happy to be working with you, and that that mitigate your company’s risk.

The Don’t List

  • Don’t fire someone at the end of the day or at the end of the week.
  • You’ve just taken someone’s livelihood (and perhaps a bit of their pride). If there’s more to the business day and more to the week immediately afterward, they could decide to start making the “Jerry Maguire” phone calls to find their next role right away. When you notify them earlier in the day, earlier in the week, they can get to work replacing the income they just lost. By taking productive action, they can begin rebuilding their pride without waiting painfully through the night or through a long weekend. And if they choose to sit on the sofa with a pint of ice cream, that option is always available. Ben and Jerry work weekends and weekdays.
  • Don’t take someone you’ve just fired on a “perp walk.” That is, don’t call security over to stand behind them with arms crossed while they empty the personal contents of their desk into a banker’s box. Don’t then shadow them as they walk past their up-until-moments-ago coworkers (who are looking on) in order to insure they they don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to them or damage any company assets out of spite. You, the manager who’s expected and doesn’t seem out of place, can walk with them to their desk to grab their keys. You can chat with them for cover about a movie you’ve both seen. You can walk out with them inconspicuously. You can even watch from some moderate distance to ensure they don’t take or break anything that’s not theirs. (Not to mention that if you’ve been good to them and if you go through the process of firing them as we describe here, they’ll be far more unlikely to feel vindictive.) And then, you can invite them to come back on a weekend or other day without so many others in the office to retrieve the rest of their things under closer — but still friendly — watch.
  • Don’t hide. By firing someone, you’ve put yourself through something of a trauma. And even if it’s not been traumatic for you, it may have been exhausting. After they’ve left the building, your job is still not done. Resist the urge to close the door and hide in your office, go home, or otherwise make yourself hard to find so you can lick your wounds or avoid the 5th degree from your team. You’ll come off as cold and stoke the rumor-mill. Take a moment. Acknowledge your pain. Then take a deep breath and go be present with the rest of your team. Let them know that Person Y is no longer in your employ and answer questions with as much transparency is warranted. Some folks may need reassurances that they’re not next in a wave of layoffs. Others will want to know what’s next, how the work will be covered, and how person Y is doing.
  • Don’t put people on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan. Yuck. The performance improvement plan is a toxic tool with a toxic reputation for being a toxic smoke-screen, CYA (Cover Your Aspect…) measure to protect you from wrongful-termination liability. It appears you’re building a case after the decision to fire someone. That’s bass-akwards. Because of decades of PIP charades, your employees (all of them, not just the person on the PIP) will likely believe you’ve initiated a 6 month illusion of trying to help them improve their performance to save their job. Even if you truly do mean to help them improve their performance, this is the nearly universal and unshakeable impression people have of the PIP. Also — and this is important — the PIP is not the best tool available to you. (If you want guidance on what to do instead, let us know and we’ll create a blog for that. Meanwhile, this podcast episode about how to fire someone goes into some detail. And there’s some detail in the first to-do below.)

The Do List

  • Give (and document) plentiful and frequent feedback to everyone who reports to you. Do this whether you’re considering letting them go, or intending and hoping that they’ll stay forever. Everyone who reports to you needs feedback. In fact, a consistent method for giving feedback is an essential part of any system of management. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, deliver and document it frequently. If you’re telling people about what they’re doing that you want repeated and thanking them… If you’re telling them where they’re falling short, and where continuing to fall short in this way is likely to lead (perhaps firing)… If you’re documenting this feedback and your transparency around consequences by simply taking notes in a single location or in multiple locations that you can then easily collect… If you’re keeping unilateral records of this kind, then you will have a record that will very likely do the job to cover your decision to fire and to cover that decision better than the PIP generally does. You’ll also have a record of how even handed and encouraging you’ve been. (If you’re following our advice, you’re giving far more positive feedback than negative). It’s evidently not that you had it out for this person. You saw many good qualities in their work and told them about those qualities. And, you’ve also told them that failure in a particular area would lead to firing. And so it has. No firing should ever come as a surprise!
  • Write and practice what you’ll say in the firing conversation before you get there. This is a hard and unusual conversation with pain and fear on both sides. In such a situation, you’re likely to draw a blank and/or put your foot in your mouth. Plan and script getting straight to the point. “Mark, this will be your last day on the job here.” From there you can tell Mark you’ll miss him, that you admire him, that he’s ideally suited for Job X, even if Job A where he’s been isn’t the right position for him. Be sure not to try to cushion the blow with preamble before your core message. Get straight to the point.
  • Help them win. After a very swift and compassionate, “You won’t be working here anymore,” statement, move directly into, “how can I help you win from here?” I just hurt you. I’m sorry for your pain. I want you to do and to be well. Can I introduce you to someone who may need your particular skills? How would you like the fact that you’ll be leaving communicated to the rest of your team? Would you like to say goodbye before you go? Would you prefer this severance package or that one (where one may include more cash and less time on extended benefits and the other may be the reverse)?

Have you decided you must fire someone?

If you follow this guidance… If you fire people in this way, you’ll preserve human dignity — your own and that of the person you’ve fired. You’ll provide a point of pride for your team, and instead of leaving hem with a bad taste in their mouths. I’m proud to have worked for companies and bosses who treated even the people they’d decided to fire with dignity and respect. Following this guidance can cause the team mates who remain to doubly wish to stay working for you. They’ll see you as someone of character and integrity. And you’ll mitigate risk in three important ways.

One way in which this guidance mitigates risk is by lowering legal exposure. People treated with dignity are less likely to sue, and you’re less likely to lose the suit if they do. As they go back out into the marketplace from which you’ll continue to need to recruit both future employees and future customers, they’re more likely to speak well of you and of your company.

Also, and this is very important, you’ll be giving people more reason to want to stay, stay engaged, and hold the interests of the company. You’ll get more retention, less breakage, more profit.

TEAMIFICATION is a part of what the strongest companies do, even when they’re removing someone from the team.


If you’re facing one of the many tricky challenges inherent in leading people, please contact us. We’d be happy to help you navigate through — even with a simple and brief call at no charge. We’re here to make your work life, your company, your profit even better than it is today.