How To Fire Someone Without Losing Sleep Over It

All companies terminate employees, but they don't have to degrade them in the process. (Image David Castillo Dominici)

Sometimes, after you fire someone, they stay with you. You know the ones — the guy who worked hard but just didn’t have the strategic expertise you needed. Or the person who was a kind, decent, C-player you simply couldn’t afford to carry. Not to mention the one who was hired to do one job, but as market conditions necessitated the position to change, the person couldn’t make the jump.

Most terminated employees don’t fall into the saboteur bucket. They aren’t out to harm anyone. They aren’t a cancer eating away at your organization. They aren’t stealing from the company. They just don’t fit. (Despite everyone’s best intentions and wishes otherwise.)

And you still have to fire them. And it hurts, literally. A study conducted at 45 hospitals across the United States indicated that managers doubled their risk of heart attacks during the week after they fired someone.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the warning signs that employees should heed that their job may be in jeopardy and exit on their own terms. I guess I’m on a bit of a crusade to find a better way than the standard Trumpian “You’re Fired!”

This indelible sound bite is more than reality entertainment — most companies manage to make the process more degrading than it has to be.

In my book The Power of Presence, I discuss how to let someone go in the most presence-filled, trusted way possible. (Yes, this is probably making employment lawyers reading this twitch.) But I still believe there’s a better way — almost always. One that sets everyone up to go forward with more self-esteem, less overall risk, and mutual reputations intact.

The reason terminations are handled as they are is to mitigate legal risk. Hence the accepted formula: Say as little as possible, get the person out of the office quickly, and have the individual sign a severance document agreeing not to contact clients or sue.

This legal advice assumes the employee can’t be trusted and may have criminal intentions. As a result, the employee often gets 15 minutes to pack up personal belongings and an escort out the door. Email is scanned and computers are confiscated. The whole process arouses antagonistic feelings that might have been avoided if the employee were treated with dignity.

It also leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the employees left behind, who may feel upset by the cavalier treatment accorded a co-worker—and wonder how they’ll be treated under similar circumstances.

None of this process eliminates risk — in fact, it may increase it! If you’re worried about a lawsuit, know that fired employees who sue a company often base that decision on the treatment they received on the way out. A 2009 study, Preserving Employee Dignity During the Termination Interview, examined workers’ reactions to common firing methods. It found that employees generally liked being praised even as they were getting fired, but that any favorable effects of the praise were eroded when a security guard escorted the worker out after the meeting. In addition, having a third party in the room “was viewed as demonstrating a lack of respect,” according to the study, published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

Another study cited in Wall Street Journal found that workers were ten times more likely to sue when not given a reason for their termination.

I’ve made it a point to learn from companies that terminate employees and still treat them in a respected and trusted way, and adopted many of these practices in my own company. Here are some approaches I’ve seen to help people exit a company with dignity and a softer landing:

  • Give someone early notice if you feel that person’s performance is leading to termination. Don’t assume the employee will exploit the situation and stop doing his or her work. Act as a mentor to help the person find a more suitable role in another department or another company, or to consider a new path.
  • Offer to let the person resign on his own accord with two to three months of pay (either while working or as severance).
  • Hire the employee as a consultant on a part-time basis to wrap up unfinished projects.
  • Create a corporate policy of outplacement where terminated employees can use a desk, office or other resources as a base of operations.
  • Make introductions to company recruiters who can locate a more suitable position.

There is, of course, another side to the equation, and that’s how the employee behaves—whatever the reason for the termination.

In some cases it’s a for-cause termination, as outlined above. Sometimes it’s a layoff. And sometimes an employee resigns to accept a better opportunity elsewhere.

Here’s a universal truth – and it can affect your future: People remember how you leave, more so than what you did prior to that.

If you’re treated respectfully, given the tough circumstances, you have an opportunity to build trust and respect by being helpful, contributing your best up to the last minute and refraining from spreading negativity. Work with the company to make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone.

Business circles are small, and your integrity and reputation are portable. For everyone, managers and employees alike: taking the high road is an investment in your future.

Do you have a better policy for letting people go? Comment here or on Twitter @kristihedges.

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.


About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, blogger, contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

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