How to Fire Someone Without Losing Sleep

by | Oct 12, 2010 | Blog, Employee Relations, Employment Policies, HR Issues, HR Policies

  • Amy Letke

    Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success. Contact us for more insights - 502-753-0970 or

So maybe you’ll still lose a little sleep, because letting someone go is never easy, but this article will cover your bases so at the end of the day you feel a little bit better about having performed this difficult task.

Many of our blogs have centered on employee relations and how to handle difficult circumstances. One of the most difficult circumstances managers face is how to fire an employee when the time comes.  I have had the unfortunate and dubious honor of having to fire many employees over my career as an HR Professional.

After one particularly difficult period in the restructuring of an organization, the guys back in the tool and die shop presented me with a pink painted axe, complete with matching bow.

Terminating an employee is never fun and rarely easy. There have only been a few rare occasions when an employee has done something so terrible and so out of line that I fired them then and there on the spot, felt justified in doing so, and felt absolutely no reservations about the actions. However those moments are few and far between.

Most of the time we have to terminate an employee over matters that are beyond their or our control (downsizing) or after we have had multiple conversations and discussions with the employee in an effort to get them to straighten up and fly right. I’ve yet to meet the good manager (emphasis on the good) who can emulate the Donald with a simple “You’re fired.”, and move on without thinking twice.

So how do we ease the feels of anxiety, discomfort, and guilt that come with firing an employee?

    • Be Honest – Employees should know why they are being terminated. Please don’t go down the cowardly Employment at will road with them.  While this is an employer right in most states, nobody buys it and you will leave them to their own assumptions as to why they were let go, not to mention leave the employee steaming with resentment (and those reasons might be things that you don’t even know about).A layoff is a layoff, gross misconduct is gross misconduct, and poor performance is poor performance. Sometimes it’s a matter of being a bad hire and a bad fit and it’s simply time to part ways.Don’t embellish and don’t minimize – tell the truth. Also be sincere. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad for the employee, especially in circumstances of layoffs. I’ve cried with many while I’ve fired them, and even had one employee tell me he still loved all of us in the company and thought I was the best manager he’d ever had.It truly did hurt to let him go, but it had to be done for nothing other than financial reasons. Having to fire him was no reason to make him feel that he was any less important to our team. The same goes for your team members. Be honest.
  • Be Brief – One of my cardinal rules when terminating an employee is that it should never be a surprise to them.  While this can’t always be achieved in a downsizing situation, ideally employees should have already had a discussion in which they either 1) knew that their job was on the line due to performance or, 2) knew that they personally were doing something against corporate policy that would lead to termination (such as stealing). If it’s a downsizing situation, there’s not much more you need to say than that (and a sincere “I’m sorry” if you actually mean it.).  If the termination is due to gross misconduct, that’s all you need to say as well. If the person is let go after a lengthy process of attempted improvement, you just need to say that the attempts to modify behavior or performance have not succeeded or outline which particular goal or aspect of the performance improvement plan was violated.You do not need to get into a dialogue with the employee about why, who else, what could have been done differently, etc.  Absolutely do not put yourself in a position to have to defend your termination decision with the employee. The decision was made and you are carrying it out. There’s no more discussion to be had. In the case of the employee who has been a long term problem, all the talking has already been done. They probably know what’s coming.My way of handling this is to cut to the chase, tell the employee they are being terminated and why, let them know what will follow in regard to COBRA, returning property, etc., and then stand up, offer my hand if they will take it and walk them to the door. Curt? Perhaps. But it’s just like the old but true adage about ripping off a band-aid.  Of course, if the employee becomes despondent and is crying or is in such a state that you don’t feel they should be driving, give them time to get themselves together, but don’t feel that you have to fill this time with conversation about the decision. If you feel that you can’t stand the silence and might say more than you should, have someone else in management with you.
  • Be Respectful – Above all else, be respectful to the employee. Sir Winston Churchill stated that “When killing a man, it costs nothing to be polite.” Regardless of the circumstances that lead to the termination, be professional and courteous to the individual. This is not a time to say that you told them so, or what they could have done differently, or how much better things will be without them.Nor is it the time to make yourself feel better about your decision by belittling the employee and minimizing their contributions so that you can feel justified, particularly in situations of layoffs or reductions of positions. Try to do terminations at a time during which the employee will have less exposure to their colleagues and can avoid the “walk of shame” of being led out of the building with all curious eyes cast upon them. The end of the day or right before lunch perhaps when employees will not be at their stations once the conversation is done. Being terminated is a terrible experience, even when it is well deserved.Take the high road.

These are the emotional aspects of the termination discussion that will help to ease the pain, however there are other things to consider, such as whether or not the employee might become volatile and if you need security precautions, whether or not HR should be present if a manager is doing the termination (the answer to that friends, is almost always YES), as well as maintaining your exit checklist to be certain all bases are covered and all employee property and passwords retrieved from the employee.

If you need help with any of that, we can certainly be of assistance.  However, I’ve found that the “stuff” surrounding a termination that is tangible is not the concern – it’s the emotions that go with carrying it out. It’s okay to feel what you feel. We’re all human. Just don’t let it get in the way of doing what has be to be done and doing it in a way that is right for everyone involved.

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