Firing an employee can be one of the hardest tasks for a manager. But there are ways you can mitigate the discomfort for the employee and for yourself.
In some cases, the employee’s behaviour makes firing them easier. For example, they might be persistently late, rude to colleagues or customers, and generally have a terrible attitude. Firing an employee in such cases can still be difficult, but being confident in your reason certainly helps take the edge off the task.
However, the employee’s performance may have been exemplary. Their behaviour, attitude, and personality may have been perfect from the day they arrived, but it’s just not working out. Or maybe restructuring has caused unavoidable layoffs.
Whatever the reason, it can be difficult for managers or business owners to deal with, not to mention the employee being fired. However, the experience can be made as smooth as possible for all concerned provided you take the appropriate steps beforehand and deal with the occasion in the right manner.
Maintaining staff morale
Before moving on to how to fire an employee ‘nicely’, it’s worth mentioning how other team members who work for you can be affected by the situation.
If an employee is underperforming or their behaviour is upsetting people, their actions could begin to cause resentment among their peers. If morale in the rest of your team is dropping because of an individual, it’s time to do something about it.
On the other hand, an underperforming employee might still be popular among the rest of the team. Not only that, but seeing an employee get fired for underperforming might make others feel insecure in their role.
If others are not happy with what they see, or feel as though they might be next, overall morale can take a nosedive. The potential pitfalls involved in firing an employee means the task needs to be performed as tactfully as possible.
If your team is affected by a necessary firing, it’s important to show the rest of the team that they are appreciated and that their jobs are secure. For example, reinforcing team cohesion through an out-of-office event might calm some nerves.
Especially in the era of COVID-19 when gathering indoors may not be ideal, outdoor team building exercises can help the group bond and feel more engaged in their role.
Give fair warning before you fire an employee
One of the worst things you can do is fire somebody out of the blue. Not only will this come as an unpleasant shock to the employee, but it will also likely upset the rest of your team.
Instead, give the employee plenty of warning in advance. They might not be aware of behaviour or performance issues. Sit them down first and politely explain to them what is expected of them, and how they are underperforming.
This can be part of regularly scheduled performance reviews.
Go further and try to help the employee meet expectations. Ask them if there’s anything they need and if there’s anything you can do to help them. The solution could be something as simple as letting them sit somewhere more private.
For example, an employee who is shy about speaking on the phone around other people may become more confident when they feel as though others are not listening.
Giving the employee fair warning and offering a performance improvement plan hopefully will encourage them to become a happy and productive member of the team.
If not, they can’t say they didn’t know there was a problem and can have few complaints when the time comes to act. Giving an employee fair warning also reduces the chances that the rest of your team will be watching for their unexpected pink slip as well.
Get to the point
It’s not nice to have to break bad news, so it can be tempting to try to sugarcoat it or delay it with small talk.
It can be tempting to say “You did well, but…”. Or, “It was great to have you around, but…”. However, while using this approach might feel as though you’re softening the blow, you’re probably making matters worse.
Imagine the frustration if you were told you are fired despite having done a good job. It would be confusing, and such confusion is only likely to cause resentment and make it harder for the employee to move on.
Instead, it’s best to be clear and to the point. Inform the employee politely but firmly that they have been fired. Make it clear they need to move on because the decision has been made and is final. Tell them why the decision has been made and give them a moment to let the news sink in.
There’s no need to be rude about it or insulting. There’s certainly no need to be aggressive. You can still be polite and even thank the employee for their efforts. However, be direct and to the point without trying to soften the blow.
Stand your ground
There will be cases where the employee pushes back and asks for another chance. However, you should resist the temptation to be sympathetic and give them what they want. Make it clear that the decision has been made and is final.
While you might hope the employee would appreciate being given another chance, it’s possible that the opposite will happen. Some people will feel resentment towards somebody who almost fired them, and somebody who harbours such resentment is unlikely to improve.
If you’ve played everything right up to this point, the employee has already been given chances to make things right. If you give them another chance on top of the others you’ve already given them, then you can appear weak.
Appearing weak might cause you further problems down the line, including with other employees who might lose respect for you.
Don’t get drawn into an argument
It’s not easy to hear you’ve just lost your job, and emotions can start running high.
Even usually placid people might take exception and become angry at your decision. If they do, they can become defensive and start claiming your decision isn’t fair, or that you have no right to fire them, and other such arguments.
It can be tempting to respond by explaining how you’re right and they’re wrong, but doing so is only likely to escalate the situation.
And remember that you’re not going to win an argument anyway. If you’ve played it right up to this point then the employee should have no grounds to be arguing, and it is all but impossible to win an argument with somebody who is not being reasonable.
Instead of getting dragged into a potentially nasty argument, politely remind the employee that your decision is final. Don’t give them anything to bite back on.
Don’t say they deserve to be fired for poor performance or whichever reason. Doing so is only likely to enrage them further and cause the argument to drag on.
Avoid insensitive cliches
Imagine you’ve just been fired, and the person firing you says “I understand how you feel”. How is that going to make you feel? Probably not great. How would they understand how you feel, and so what if they did?
It wouldn’t do anything to improve your situation.
Using such cliches could also sound as though you are making light of their situation by comparing your experiences to theirs. The reality is that your experiences will have no bearing on how the employee is feeling at that time.
Other examples to avoid include:
- “I wish I didn’t have to do this”
- “You’ll be thankful one day”
- “I did try to tell you”
Such cliches can provoke an upset person into reacting negatively, so it’s best to avoid using them altogether. They offer nothing constructive, so there is no reason to use them anyway.
Being fired can be a humiliating experience, so to fire someone nicely, make it as discreet as possible. One of the worst things you can do is tell somebody they are fired in front of other people.
You also need to keep the rest of your team in mind. If you are willing to humiliate an employee in front of other people, then what’s stopping you from treating your other employees the same way?
Openly firing an employee in front of everybody can lead to your employees losing respect for you and morale can also take a hit.
Take the employee somewhere where you can talk face-to-face in private, such as a meeting place where your conversation can’t be overheard. Listen to what they have to say. You should still stay firm, but give them the opportunity to let off some steam and give them time to compose themselves if needed.
It’s also advisable to let the employee know at the end of the day. Bear in mind they will still likely need to walk back to their desk after being informed they’re fired.
This can be embarrassing for them, and they may be feeling very emotional. By letting them know at the end of the day, it means the employee won’t have to face other people if they’re not feeling up to it.
You should also try to give the employee some say in how they leave. For example, it can be embarrassing for a fired employee to pack their personal items with everybody watching. Instead, try to give them an opportunity to return to company property when it is quiet.
It’s also a good idea to give the terminated employee the opportunity to decide how the rest of their team is informed. Some would prefer to tell them themselves and say their goodbyes, while others would prefer to let management tell everybody so they can slip away quietly.
Gather relevant information beforehand
When somebody is fired, there are usually further arrangements to be made.
These include picking up their final pay, what to do with any company equipment they have, details about any severance package, what happens with their health insurance, and what to do about outstanding vacation days.
An employee who has just been fired is unlikely to be in the right frame of mind to address these things. You can make it a lot easier for them by getting this information from human resources in advance. It will be better still if you can write the details down and hand them to the employee so they can deal with them when they are feeling up to it.
They should also be given some time to take care of the final details instead of having to address them when they are still upset.
If an employee is let go through no fault of their own, such as company restructuring making their job redundant, it is a good idea to offer the employee some support.
This can include offering to introduce the employee to new contacts and writing recommendation letters to potential new employers.
Offering support in helping an employee find a new job can take some of the sting out of the news and give them something positive to focus on. It can also help give you peace of mind in knowing that even though you’re letting the employee go, you’re doing what you can to help them find a new job.
Remember the golden rule
Last but far from least, remember the Golden Rule: treat other people as you would like to be treated.
Remember that firing somebody can be an emotional and humiliating experience, and the employee may have serious concerns about their finances. While people will have different personal preferences regarding some of the details, treating people as you would hope to be treated in the same circumstances is a good rule of thumb when firing somebody, and in life in general.
Firing an employee can be difficult — for the employee as well as the manager doing the firing. But there are steps you can take to mitigate the discomfort of the experience, maintain staff morale, and fire your employee in the nicest way possible.
Give fair warning rather than firing an employee out of the blue. When it’s time to fire the employee, the termination meeting should be private. Speak to the HR department beforehand and get all the paperwork and details in place so you can avoid dragging out the process.
Get to the point instead of delaying the inevitable with meaningless tangents. Avoid cliches that might make you feel better in the moment but will be meaningless and insensitive to the person being fired. Stand your ground if your employee challenges your decision or authority. And don’t get drawn into an argument over your “right” to fire the employee — the time for them to fight for their job has passed.
Not all firings happen because the person has failed as an employee. Offering letters of recommendation and introducing them to new contacts can ease their future job search — and your conscience. In all cases, treat them how you want to be treated if you were the one being fired. Let empathy guide you in this often unpleasant process.
About the Author
Jamie Finch is an experienced freelance writer with a focus on SEO and digital marketing topics, but he’s happy to write on just about any topic under the sun. He has experience writing in various formats, especially blogs, articles, and web content.
Jamie became a writer after emigrating to Thailand from Britain more than 20 years ago. When he’s not busy writing, Jamie works on side projects instead or enjoys gaming or relaxing in good company.