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Manager Series, Part 6: How to Fire Someone


Manager Series, Part 6: How to Fire Someone

This is Part 6 of a 7-part series on management best practices, tips and tricks, and what not to do.
Part 1 starts with the basics of being in management, and how to be a good manager.
Part 2 teaches you how to conduct a good employee performance evaluation.
Part 3 covers getting good job performance from your employees.
Part 4 gives you ways to manage difficult employee conversations.
Part 5 shows you how to fire someone properly.
Part 7 talks about how to tell the remaining members of your team that someone has been fired.

You’ve led the horse to water, but apparently it’s not thirsty.

Despite your best efforts, an employee is not meeting their minimally acceptable performance standard, and it’s time to let them go. And whether it’s your first time or your 50th, firing someone doesn’t make for a good day. It’s literally saying to them, “You are not good enough at this job to be worth the money that I pay you to do it.”

Worst meeting ever.

Even though it’s not going to be fun, there are ways to go about firing someone that will make it less painful —while staying within the legal boundaries for having this type of conversation.

First, from a moral and ethical perspective, realize this: The idea that firing someone means you’re saying the person is bad, or the person is a failure, is completely incorrect.

In reality, firing someone means that (high crimes and misdemeanors aside) the person just doesn’t fit the role. It says nothing about who they are as a person. If the cliche “It’s just business” works anywhere, it’s here.

Three Points of View

One way to put some space between yourself and the awfulness of firing someone can be to look at the situation through lenses that aren’t your own.

From the perspective of the person you’re firing, you’re telling them that they no longer have a job. That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t like them or that you’re intentionally being mean. In fact, if you fire them the “right” way, they might even look back on their time with your company with fondness one day. (Not that day, of course. But with time.)

The co-workers who will still be around to hear the news will need time to process what happened, because watching someone else get walked out is a not-so-friendly reminder that they, too, could be in the same boat someday. If it was generally agreed that the person was bad at the job, they’ll probably make do with a somber happy hour. But if no one else was really aware of the person’s poor performance, firing someone can feel like an earthquake.

Do your best to read the room and give your remaining team members the time they need. (Perhaps do the firing on a Friday, or at the very least as the last thing in the day.)

Finally, from your perspective as the manager, it’s likely that the person on the receiving end of the firing is going to have a worse day than you. But understand that it will be hard on you as well, and give yourself some grace.

(PS: If it isn’t hard on you, then you probably definitely have no business managing people.)

The ‘Right’ Way to Cut Ties

For all three parties involved, the best way to get through this type of tough situation is to be honest, quick, and kind.

Let’s tackle honesty first, because honestly, it’s the biggest hurdle. It can be really tempting to lie to a person who’s being fired. Some of the most common reasons I hear are “to save their feelings” and “so they don’t get mad at me.” While we can all relate to those reasons on one level or another, the truth is that lying about why someone is being fired hurts everyone involved.

Take this common lie and how it can do more harm than good: “I’m not firing you. I’m laying you off because there is not enough work.”

First, this lie hurts the person being fired, because they lose out on any knowledge that they need to do better in their next job. If they get hired at another company to do the same job, then get fired again, how does that help anyone? The employee walked away from your company thinking it was just bad luck, and is blindsided when it happens to them again.

Second, this lie hurts co-workers. Whenever someone is fired, it’s inevitable that they’ll talk to their co-workers about why. And if they say, “Well, the boss told me we don’t have enough work,” that scares the rest of the people who work for you, who may now (incorrectly) think that if business is slow, they may also be on the chopping block.

Finally, lying hurts you, the manager, because you now have to not only carry that lie around but also remember it and trot it out without hesitation if someone asks. As life has proven time and again, lies build up, leak out, and eventually sink the ship. So while it might save someone’s feelings in the short term, ultimately it hurts everybody involved.

The next tip is to be quick. Once you’ve decided to fire someone, you’re past the point of discussion. Maybe last week you had an uncomfortable, hourlong meeting to talk about how they handled a customer interaction, but once you’ve made the decision, the specifics are no longer relevant. When you fire someone you should do it quickly, without arguing or rehashing details.

That’s not to say the person on the receiving end won’t try, and that’s because, subconsciously, they’re trying to both stop the process and shift blame. They’ll say things like “Wait, let’s talk about this” or “I told you that wasn’t my fault.” A manager cannot allow the conversation to go in that direction. Dragging out the inevitable just makes the ickiness last longer, for everyone involved.

Finally, be kind. Remember the insight from earlier: Firing someone doesn’t mean you don’t like them or hope they don’t have a good future ahead. Put yourself in their shoes, because a little empathy can go a long way here.

Do’s and Don’ts of Firing Someone

Once you’re ready to have the conversation, be sure that all your ducks are in a row. This is especially important for legal purposes.

  1. Always have someone with you when you fire someone. Having a witness comes with two benefits: First, it reduces tension, because we subconsciously want to perform better when people are watching us. Having someone in the room reduces the odds of the person being fired lashing out or throwing a fit. It also reminds you, the manager, to remain on your best behavior if that happens.
    Having a witness also means someone else heard everything that was said during the encounter. If there’s a dispute in the future over what happened for any reason, having a witness to verify conversations can be a legal lifesaver.
  2. Always (always) fire someone privately. This is like the business adage “Praise publicly but criticize privately” times a million. If you are a small business without a conference room or other private area, do it at the end of the day after everyone else has gone home. Or do it outside if you need to, but never where others can even catch an inkling of the conversation.
    It’s not only disrespectful (and definitely not kind), but it will freak out the remaining employees no matter how justified.
  3. Leave time for everyone to process the news afterward, yourself included. Don’t schedule a firing at 11 a.m., then take a sales call at 11:30. Although it’s true that you want to be quick about it, you’ll still need time to decompress, write down any relevant notes, and hit the reset button on the rest of the day.

Firing Someone: A Script

If you’re still feeling uneasy about the task ahead, here’s a sample script for how you might go about firing someone. In this scenario, Alexandria is firing Jared.

Alexandria: “Hi, Jared. Thanks for coming to my office. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but today is your last day working at Wham Co.”

Jared: “Wait. Are you firing me?”

A: “Yes. Today is your last day, and so I wanted to go over …”

J: “Wait, is this about that order from Acme? I already told you, I didn’t screw that up, they ordered the 85096 …”

A: “Jared, I’m sorry, but I need to stop you. This decision has been made. I have here your final check and some paperwork about your options to continue insurance, as well as your retirement accounts. What I need to get from you is your company cellphone and your keys. Then I’ll walk you to the door.”

J: “This isn’t fair! You have to give me a written warning before you can …”

A: “I’m sorry, Jared, but I won’t discuss this further at this time. Will you please give me your phone and keys?”

All three “right” emotions are at play here: honesty, quickness, and kindness. Nobody wants to be fired and nobody wants to fire someone, but there is a way to do it that works as well as possible for everybody involved.

Firing someone isn’t the end of the story, though, because you now have to talk to their teammates about what happened, and why. Onward … to Part 7!

Related content:
Manager Series, Part 1: What No One Ever Told You About Being a Manager
Manager Series, Part 2: How to Write an Employee Performance Review
Manager Series, Part 3: How to Get Your Employees to Give You What You Need
Manager Series, Part 4: Techniques for Managing Challenging Conversations
Manager Series, Part 5: Reasons to Fire an Employee
Manager Series, Part 7: Telling Your Team Someone Was Fired

Worst meeting ever.

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