How to Fire Someone Without Destroying Them
Being let go can be one of the most painful, humiliating, and devastating experiences of one’s life — but it doesn’t have to be the worst. How a manager handles the process will have a huge impact on how a former employee moves forward and how he or she will look back on this life-altering moment in the future.
Let’s explore two ways that Jack (not his real name) could be let go:
Scenario 1: Jack’s manager fires him without doing the work ahead of time (giving him feedback, offering him ways to improve, putting him on a performance plan, giving any indication that there is an issue), leaving Jack completely blindsided. The conversation is rushed and the manager is distracted — they’re interrupted twice in their 17-minute meeting. The manager seems to view Jack’s firing as something “that just needs to get done.”
Jack walks away from the conversation feeling small, humiliated, and incompetent. The professional “family” he’s had for years is now gone, which adds to his emotional distress. Now he has to go home, tell his family, and figure out his next move.
What went wrong? Almost everything. The conversation came as a total shock. His manager was not emotionally present and gave off vibes of fear, discomfort, and pity (versus empathy or sympathy), combined with just wanting to get it over with.
Scenario 2: Jack’s boss has spoken with him honestly and candidly. She has set Jack up in every way possible for success and has given him ample opportunities to perform better…so that when the firing conversation happens, it’s not a surprise. While disappointed, Jack also feels cared about, valued, and believed in. And he has hope that there will be something better for him down the road. He walks out feeling whole. And when he looks back at this situation later in his life, he sees it as a pivotal moment that taught him a lot and opened him up for something bigger. He still looks at the company, that experience, and his manager as something life-giving versus something soul-sucking.
These best practices can help make the exiting process more like this second scenario:
Before the meeting:
Do your groundwork. Make sure that you’ve prepared responsibly for this firing. Does the person know there’s been an issue? Has he been given an opportunity to shift and act upon the feedback? Getting fired should never come as a huge surprise.
Next, identify the right environment for the conversation. This should be a private place where you won’t be interrupted.
Finally, think about what you want to say. Instead of preparing a scripted speech, focus on setting your intentions. Give yourself some space to really think about this person: who he is, why you hired him in the first place, what this will be like for him. What outcomes do you want? How do you want the other person to feel? How will you need to show up during this conversation to offer support? Try to see the best in the other person. Imagine him contributing more powerfully in another organization or role. Approach the conversation with the assumption that he has value — it may just be in a different job.
During the conversation:
If you’ve set the space correctly and done your groundwork, the dialogue will be organic and your intuition will inform much of the conversation. The most important things here are your intention toward this person, your energy, and your presence. How you regard the other person can influence his beliefs about himself, the conversation itself, and the rest of his career.
With that said, here are a couple of things to consider during the conversation:
- Sandwich feedback. While it’s tempting to say good things to temper the bad (“You’re great, you’re fired, we’ve loved having you here”), it only confuses the issue. Do let the other person know why you’re here — make sure you’re both on common ground as to the reasons behind the firing. Say something like: “As you know, we’ve been trying to work with you to make this role successful over the last six months, and as you know, it’s not working out. I want to have a conversation with you about how we can complete our current engagement and support you in moving forward on a new path that will be even better for you.” Of course, these are my words; please use your own — they have to be true to you.
- Avoid the conversation, breeze by it, or make it insignificant. Do make plenty of time for the conversation, acknowledge that it’s a big deal, and give the other person space to speak and process what’s happening.
- Get into the blame game or “he said/she said.” Keep it clean, and stick to the facts.
- Acknowledge the work this person has done over the years, and who he is as a person.
- Clarify any and all timelines, agreements, and next steps (if you’ve already determined them) so that you’re on the same page.
- Ask him what he needs, what would make this easier, and what kinds of support you can give him in the exiting process. Some companies, depending on the circumstances, allow employees to choose their own exit timeline and how the news is shared with peers. This has pros and cons and is a leadership call; you’ll have to decide what works best for you.
Finally, don’t be surprised if the person you’re firing is hurt or angry, blames you, or shuts down — even if he knew it was coming. No matter how intentionally you handle it, being let go hurts. Your job is to give it your best and be present for the other person so you contribute to making it the most humane experience possible.
After you break the news:
Some organizations put support processes in place to help someone who’s being fired in whatever way is most authentic for the company and most helpful to the person exiting. Examples include alumni networking groups for former employees (whether they were let go or left on their own), leaving the door open for feedback and support, offering references, providing career coaching, and even opening up their own network to help someone find a position for which they’re better suited.
Please note that I’m speaking to this topic from the perspective of leadership and humane dialogues that support everyone. Every company’s policies are different, so please check your own organizational, state, and HR guidelines for proper processes and such. The bottom line, no matter what those policies are, is that you can apply your intention, your energy, and your presence to have the best impact possible on the person you’re firing. You have major power here. Whether your employee was a horrible performer and simply had to go or he just wasn’t a good fit, how you show up in the firing process will influence how this person shows up with their family, their kids, their peers, and their future business ventures. Respect that. And rise to the occasion.
(Source: 28jan16 – Harvard Business Review / Anese Cavanaugh)