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How to Fire Someone: Professionally, Legally and Humanly

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More than 50,000 people are fired every day in the US in an average year (not counting years like those of the pandemic). 

The main stated causes for firing someone are lack of respect, violations of company policy (such as ranting on social media), poor performance, and the effects of automation and economic turmoil. Underlying reasons for firing someone include discrimination, bad faith by the company, and poor management.

Firing someone is never easy: you may feel emotionally and professionally inadequate to the task and guilty about the impact on the fired employee. You may question what you did wrong as a hiring manager and leader and if any other course of action was available to you. In addition, you create a gap in your team and a lot of extra work for you and them; their morale will also take a hit—with some team members opting to start a job search.

So how do you fire someone in a way that doesn’t reek of discrimination or bad faith; humanizes the experience; and enables you to believe you did the best you could?

Make Sure

Before you decide that firing a team member or employee is the best possible solution, you should consider whether alternatives exist. You might consider:

  • Group Action. When a company is in financial trouble, they often react by firing employees. You might suggest an alternative—for example, would the remaining employees and the bosses be willing to take a small put cut to save more jobs, could you reduce bonuses or delay promotions, or take some company-wide action that actually boosts your culture?
  • Reassignment. An employee may thrive in another position in the company, whether because the manager is different, the work is more compatible, or they finally realize the seriousness of their jeopardy.
  • Competency Management. Have you been precise about the problem? Have you provided the communication, training, resources, and support that the employee needs to improve? Is there an action plan in place that the employee understands and has agreed to? 
  • Active Listening. Is the employee going through a tough personal situation? Does the employee feel dead-ended in the job and, therefore, has lost motivation? Is there a problem within the team, and the employee’s behavior is a reflection of discrimination, generational conflict, stress, inefficient processes, lack of resources, or some other problem that needs solving?

TIP: Try to take the least harmful action first before escalating to firing someone.

Keep the Encounter as Positive as Possible

People do recover from being fired. In fact, one study of 2,600 leaders found that nearly half had been fired at least once and 78% of those fired ended up as CEO of a company. You can accelerate the positives by making sure you:

  • Ask: Know the next steps. Do not make a fired person wait while you hunt for information you should have at your fingertips.
    • Clarify whether the employee is being fired or laid off. Employees who are laid off are usually eligible for severance pay, unemployment insurance, and other assistance that may not be available to a fired employee.
    • Find out whether the company offers transition help or if the company policy lets you offer a recommendation.
    • Only promise what you know you can deliver. 
  • Respect: This employee may be an individual you yourself hired or someone who is trying their best or someone who worked for the company for years; this is not a saboteur or thief.
  • Listen: The employee is allowed to react, ask questions, and even explode. Keep calm. Bring the conversation back to what you know and to next steps.
  • Respond: Offer the answers to questions about severance pay, last paycheck, unused vacation time, 401k funds, and so on—or direct the person to someone who knows the answers.

TIP: Review your employee handbook to understand the disciplinary process and policies so that you act in conformance with information that the employee has.

Avoid Major Surprises

If you are firing an employee for cause, you should have been working with them for a while to improve their performance, attitude, or fit with the culture. The employee may still be shocked: no one expects to be fired. To reduce that shock and the chances of a confrontation that will be stressful for everyone, make sure you:

  • Communicate: You should have discussed the problem(s) with the employee in person all along and have come up with a plan to remedy the problem(s) that the employee signed. The employee should be aware of the problems. 
  • Document: You should have documented progress or lack of progress all along while you were doing your part to enable the employee to meet standards.
  • Confirm: Make it clear that the employee is being fired; this is not just another warning; and there is no argument or higher power (your boss) able to reverse the decision.
  • Stop. Do not enter into a long, involved list of faults; hold out hope that doesn’t exist; or give the fired employee encouragement to debate your decision. 

Cover Yourself and Your Company

Wrongful termination is the legal term for a firing that is illegal; for example, it violates laws against discrimination. Most lawyers agree that the average compensation for wrongful termination is $40,000, although it is sometimes much higher. To protect yourself and your company, you should:

  • Know the Law. If you or your company decided to address a financial problem by firing everyone with a handicap or everyone over the age of 60, you may find yourself in trouble with regulatory agencies and involved in lawsuits.
  • Have Backup. Always have a second person in the room with you when you fire someone, preferably a person from Human Resources who knows the law can handle difficulties with the employee and can substantiate anything you say or do in court if needed.
  • Practice. Practice what you are going to say to the employee. Use SMaRT mindfulness strategies to calm yourself, including visualization and letting go of self-judgment so that you can concentrate on the needs of the employee and the situation.
  • Protect. The fired employee may have computer access to sensitive or proprietary information. Ask IT to remove their access and ask the employee to return any company property (such as a badge). Let the employee know that they no longer have access.

TIP: Follow through on all legal requirements after a termination; for example, did the employee get credit for unused vacation time, and was the last paycheck sent? Be responsive if the employee calls you for help in any post-termination issues.

Be Human

No one who is fired appreciates a “walk of shame”—being escorted out of the building by security without any chance to gather their effects. In fact, one company became notorious for handcuffing employees when walking them out. Instead, you can:

  • Frame it as a poor fit. This is not the time to berate an employee, compare their performance to someone else’s, or make disparaging remarks. They have skills and strengths; they are simply not what your company needs. 
  • Give the employee a set time to gather their things and say goodbye. Set a time when they will meet you to walk together out of the office or when you expect them to leave the premises.
  • Avoid amateur psychology. This is not the time to say, “Everything will turn out all right,” or “I understand how you feel.” You are not being fired; you cannot possibly know how the other person feels. Fired employees are overwhelmed and stressed and are allowed their privacy. 
  • Attend to Your Team. Your team is worrying: will they be fired next? Even if they wanted the person to be fired, they are facing more work the possibility that the next hire will be just as disgruntled, bullying, and incompetent. They need support. Above all, do not disparage the employee who was fired for any reason. Team members are feeling vulnerable enough and they need reassurance.

Key Takeaways

Firing is stressful both for you and the employee—but in this case, the employee’s welfare comes first. By using mindful leadership and SMaRT strategies, you can get through a firing with professionalism and grace while giving appropriate support to both the fired employee and your team.

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