How to let an employee go with tact

by Daniel Hannig

Offboarding. Decruiting. A “personnel realignment.” Discharged. Downsizing. No matter how you dress it up, there’s no putting a pleasant twist on firing someone. Firings, while usually necessary for the health of your company and your other staff members, carry the weight of an uncertain future and possible significant financial burden for the employee being let go. Instead of leaning on a euphemism to soften the blow, let’s look at real solutions for the inevitable negativity of the worst part of a good leader’s job.

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It’s important to fire people well. Being able to handle the emotional strain of delivering devastating news to a subordinate isn’t easy, and adequate preparation can be invaluable. Resent employees can easily leave bad reviews on websites like Glassdoor and Indeed, so sending someone off with a bad taste in their mouth after the termination process has the potential to damage your company’s reputation.

Remember also that employees frequently stay in touch with one another after one of them is let go. Similar to how it’s said that you can tell a date’s character by how they treat the waiter, keep in mind that if they witness a bad firing, your current employees will believe that their company doesn’t value their employees as it should. Almost without exception, there’s a way to send off the departing employee that will make them feel like their time with your company was valued and more hopeful for their future. Consequently, your company can avoid the negative fallout incurred by a messy offboarding.

Before we continue, keep in mind that there are almost always legal implications and considerations to be made regarding the termination of an employee’s employment. Laws obviously vary from country to country, and the advice we offer in this article might not satisfy the legal requirements where your company is incorporated. Therefore, this article should not be taken as legal advice. When formulating your firing process, it’s always worth the time and trouble to check that your plans abide by the current laws in your location.

Does your company have international employees? Cultural considerations are important to consider when handling a termination. What you might think is a gentle way of letting someone go might be considered insulting or unclear to someone from a different country, so be sure to do your research before deciding on next steps. Most of all, remember that it’s never acceptable to fire an employee due to their race, gender, national origin, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or as retaliation. While laws may differ depending on where you live, good business ethics should be universal and recognizing them will go a long way towards protecting your organization from wrongful termination litigation. As a rule, your bar for offboarding should be higher than simple legality.

Remember, this process is generally a sensitive one for all involved and there’s no shame in being unsure of yourself. There’s no one right way to handle such an emotionally complex situation. You should always feel free to tailor the process to your own sensibilities, as well as to your perception of what each employee will be most comfortable with. Most importantly, remember to have a game plan. With that in mind, below are some helpful ideas to think about when you’re faced with the unfortunate duty of dismissing a team member.

“Most companies that go through layoffs are never the same. They don’t recover because trust is broken. And if you’re not honest at the point where you’re breaking trust anyway, you will never recover. ” – Ben Horowitz

Do it face to face, at the office, preferably during office hours

Under no circumstances should a firing take place over the phone, via text message (yes, this happens), outside of the office, or during non-standard office hours. While resorting to some of these may seem like you’re softening the blow, or protecting the employee’s privacy, you’re more than likely just making things worse. You could be misleading them about your intentions for the meeting, making them stay late in order to receive bad news, or quite possibly even exposing your company to some degree of legal liability.

Have respect and compassion

It’s not an overstatement to say that this conversation will change someone’s life. While this news could be received as anything from a devastating blow to a somewhat welcome opportunity, it’s almost certainly going to come as a bit of a surprise. Minimize that surprise by giving repeated, written warnings about the reason for the firing beforehand. When the time comes, be prepared to offer some degree of emotional support. Schedule the meeting in a room that’s in a different part of the building, if possible, and give the employee the option to clear out their desk after hours in order to avoid the “walk of shame” past their colleagues. If an escort out of the building is necessary, consider doing it yourself, as opposed to calling security, and use the time to discuss their future. Above all, never forget that you’re delivering bad news to someone that will change the way they support themselves and their family, so compassion and consideration should be your number one priorities.

Disable access to company files

Put a standing request in place with IT to remove the employee’s access to the company server as soon as possible following the termination meeting. In addition, before they leave the building, be sure to collect their badge and keys. If they have a company phone or laptop, offer them a day to back up any personal information before returning them to the office. Above all, don’t give an angry employee the opportunity to make a bad decision in the heat of the moment that could damage your company and their future.

Have HR witnesses

Schedule firings so that you have a witness from Human Resources in the room. If the firing is more sudden, and there’s no one from HR available, be sure to bring a trusted supervisor or your company’s lawyer. Firing someone is not a solo activity. Having a witness ensures that the employee cannot credibly claim that you acted in an illegal or unethical manner during the termination meeting. In addition, having a Human Resources representative with you will ensure that the employee has an expert on hand with whom they can discuss things like severance pay and ongoing insurance benefits.

Be honest about the reasons

Most employees who feel blindsided by a layoff will be asking themselves what they could have done differently. Be sure to explain the real reasons for the firing and don’t rely too heavily on euphemisms. If it’s purely a business decision, knowing that will make them feel less undervalued in the long run. If the reason is a behavioural issue, remind them that they were warned several times, and that the decision has been made based on an accumulation of occurrences, not just the most recent one. If the employee simply is no longer the right fit for your organization, take the opportunity to remind them of their skills and experience, and that they’ll be valued members of the next company they join.

Be firm on the decision

While it’s important to be gentle, be sure to deliver the news in no uncertain terms. Let the employee know that the decision has been made at the highest level and is no longer in your hands. Often, employees will realize they’re being terminated and think that they have the opportunity for one last ditch attempt to save their job. Be sure to open the meeting by greeting the employee, then stating that they are being let go. Be sure to have a well-articulated list of reasons at hand should you need to state the company’s case. This will make the meeting less stressful all around, and should keep the employee from behaving in a way that they won’t be proud of later on.

Stand by your promises

Your company’s reputation hinges on keeping its word, and that includes its promises to ex-employees. This doesn’t just apply to larger obligations like ongoing benefits or severance pay, but also to smaller commitments like recommendation letters and referrals. If you tell an employee that you think they could be a good fit for an open position at another company, be sure it’s one you’re comfortable referring them for, and make the call as soon as the employee informs you that they’ve submitted their CV. Type up letters of recommendation immediately following the meeting so that they’re available on request and the employee has what they need to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

While you’re letting the employee go for a good reason, remember that their positive qualities will most likely benefit another organization, and hopefully soon. A good reference letter should concentrate on communicating those positive qualities earnestly, and focus on the nature of the successes the employee had under your supervision. Remember that despite an employee’s faults, in the heat of the moment an offboarding can, to them, feel like a betrayal of trust. It’s up to you to alleviate that feeling and help them move forward to what’s hopefully a brighter future.

Discuss their progress and their positive future

Laid-off employees frequently panic, unsure of how they’ll be able to move on. Preempt these feelings by transitioning quickly to a discussion of their future once you’ve delivered the news. Talk about outplacement services your company might offer, bring up local news within your industry, and discuss organizations where they might look for a new job. You can also support their next move by offering to write a recommendation letter or referring them to an acquaintance at another company. In this difficult situation, anything you can do to help is a boon to your outgoing employee.

Prepare for questions and paperwork

Make sure that you’ve coordinated with Human Resources so that you and the accompanying HR representative have all necessary paperwork on hand to terminate employment immediately. You should also prepare answers to questions you can anticipate ahead of time. This will serve dual purposes: For one, the employee will feel better if any concerns they have are addressed quickly and completely. They’re likely to have questions about their final paychecks and other details, so alleviating these fears will help them to combat some measure of stress. In addition, having all of your ducks in a row can keep the meeting short and to the point. Remember, the employee is under intense emotional strain, and likely doesn’t want to be experiencing it in the office. The sooner the meeting is complete, the sooner everyone can move on to bigger and better things.

Listen to the employee

All employees, regardless of the reason for their firing, are likely to be understandably upset when they learn that their employment is being terminated. Be prepared for more emotionality than you’ve previously seen from this employee, and to listen to their questions and concerns. This is a difficult time for them, and your feelings of discomfort have to take a backseat to their emotions. Listening will help them feel more present and valued, and responding kindly will help them leave on more solid emotional footing.

Offer transitional opportunities

An often overlooked resource, outsourcing can be the difference between a bitter separation and an employee’s smooth transition to a new place of employment. While your company might be laying off employees due to financial burdens, your budget may still allow for more transitional support than you think. Consider keeping employees on the payroll to provide interim support to their replacements. If a position has been closed due to financial constraints, an employee could freelance to mitigate the loss of work output for the company while working on their own schedule.

While some may find the offer insulting, many will see it as a pragmatic way to bridge the financial gap while they hunt for a new job–so be sure to give them a couple of days to make their decision. Outplacement options can also be a huge help to exiting employees. If it’s in your budget, think about paying for things like a formal job placement agency, membership to a Premium LinkedIn account, or a professional CV writing and editing service in order to help them get on a new job path quickly.

End on a high note

While it might seem difficult, it’s important for the employee’s morale–and the morale of their friends who are still employed at your company–to try to end things on a positive note. Remind them that you’ll be supporting them in attaining unemployment benefits, and let them know you’re just an email or a phone call away if they need more answers. If the employee is getting an adequate severance package, let them know that their situation affords them the ability to relax and find a role in a new company that they’ll find exciting and fulfilling. Most importantly, remember that, though this is probably the lowest part of your day, the damage for them is likely going to be much longer-lasting. Doing what you can to minimize their negative feelings about the experience, and setting them up for future success, is the best way to handle a bad situation.


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