How Not to Fire Someone

firing someoneUnless you haven’t seen the news this week, we were all witness to the firing of James Comey, the FBI Director. Although governmental appointees and private or public sector employees are different in some respects, firing them should always be done thoughtfully and carefully for the sake of both sides. Having your bodyguard take a letter to the person’s office while they are out of town performing a function of their job is perhaps one of the more spectacularly wrong ways to do it.

I once had a scheduled call with my boss to be told about my raise and instead was told that my job was “being eliminated” while driving down the freeway between appointments and to call HR if I had any questions. The call lasted 3 minutes. Neither of these firings created a good outcome for the person doing the firing, let alone the person being fired.

Letting someone go is usually one of the most difficult things for managers and employers to do. Not because it doesn’t need to happen but because as human beings, we don’t like conflict or confrontation. So, as they say for most things, preparation is the key to making sure that when and if you must let someone go, you do it as professionally as possible.

The first thing to remember is that the person you are letting go is a human being, presumably with feelings. Up until the point of firing, you should have been letting them know what they could do to improve the situation and helping them to do so. This should be in accordance with whatever your HR handbook says about performance improvement. It’s usually a three-step process; a verbal warning, a written warning with a plan for improvement, (resources, time, etc.) and then termination. But some people just like to jump to termination because “they can.” This is usually a very risky strategy that can lead to lawsuits, hard feelings, and embarrassment on both sides. It’s entirely avoidable.

Of course, the key to not getting to the point of firing is to hire right in the first place, a topic I’ve covered in other blog posts. But, assuming you did everything right and now you have to make the change, here are a few steps to consider:

  1. Do it at the start of the week so the person doesn’t have the weekend to fret without being able to take action on it.
  2. Make it direct, reference the previous written warning, or stated reason for the firing, answer any questions they have but do not open the conversation up for negotiation. The decision is made.
  3. Let them know about severance or next steps they need to take.
  4. Do let them say goodbye to their co-workers if appropriate, this is just respectful.
  5. Provide whatever help/references you can given the circumstances.
  6. Never bad mouth the person you just fired, especially to other employees in your organization. You don’t have to provide a reference but calling them names or spreading negative comments or gossip will not go well for you.

Remember that this person will have a story about you and your company, you want this last interaction to be as good as possible. Release people with dignity for both of your sakes. Treat them as you would want to be treated in similar circumstances. It says as much about you as it does about them.