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What is The Right Way to Fire Someone

There’s a Right Way to Fire Someone… and it’s a lot simpler than you think

I have a couple of “rules” around the right way to fire someone, but it’s mostly about keeping it short and simple.

For starters, no one should ever be surprised that they’re being fired. If that happens, you suck as a manager. Firing should be the final arrow in your quiver. In some future post I will discuss everything that leads up to this point, and of course that advice will vary by jurisdiction since my readers in the UK, US, Canada and Australia are all dealing with different labour laws. In some cases, terminating an employee is incredibly difficult (Ontario) and expensive and in others, it’s just a matter of deciding (California).

So once you’ve decided to make this step and assuming you care about the right way to fire someone, there are a few must do’s regardless of the local labour laws.

Set and Setting

It will all be easier if you are able to choose a location that is somewhat private (not some fishbowl conference room for example). You must have a witness. Exactly who will depend on the size of your company / branch. If there’s a dedicated HR person on site, then it’s them. If not, choose a neutral party, preferably at a level or two above the person being terminated. You should be planning to have the employee leave immediately. Don’t allow them to convince you that they “just need to finish up x”, or “really need to brief the team on y”. Thank them for their concern and let them know you will be in touch if need be.

There is some debate about what day is best. My rule is not Monday or Friday. And i really do think it should be done earlier in the day, rather than at the end. Mostly because it seems kind of crappy to squeeze that last day of work out of someone.

The first four words you say should be “We’re Letting You Go”.

Honestly. I know it’s hard. But I’ve made the huge mistake of not doing it this way. Trust me the right way to fire someone is to tell them right away. Direct, Radical Candor is more humane than any other way. Literally, “[Insert Name] I asked you to meet today because we’ve decided that we’re going to let you go” (or “terminate your employment”, whatever flows off the tongue best). Any watering down of this initial statement will only get you in trouble. Establish at the outset that the decision is the only thing that’s not negotiable. The rest (severance, references, the company car, etc) we can talk about.

Be Honest about Why

In some jurisdictions (including Ontario where I live and work), you are required to be honest about the reason someone is being let go. It will be seen as bad faith dealing if you lie about it. So even if you’re not letting someone go “for cause”, you have to be honest about why they are being terminated. 

After the meeting

How you handle things after meeting the employee is just as important as your conduct during it. Allow the Employee to maintain their dignity by letting them choose whether to remove their personal effects right away or at a later time. If they want to say goodbye, let them. 

In most cases, you’ll be asked for a reference. This can be tricky if the employee was a very poor performer, as an inaccurate reference could leave you open to a lawsuit. But in most cases, you’ll be able to offer a reasonably-worded reference letter, and you should. Your current employees will judge you by how you treat the terminated ones. So being unreasonable about this or any other particular will lead to punishment by your staff.

Remember that the termination meeting you’re about to have may very well be one of the Top 10 worst things to happen in the person on the other side of the desk’s lifetime. It ranks up there with divorce or death of a loved one for many. So while Radical Candor is always the way, remember that kindness is almost always an option.

How NOT to fire someone…

Here’s a short story that perfectly illustrates why you need to be very direct during that first few seconds of the meeting.

Our company had an inside salesperson, who we will call Bill, who was not getting the job done so his supervisor, a newly-minted National Sales Manager (let’s call him Arthur) and I decided he should be placed on a formal Performance Improvement Program (yes, the dreaded PIP). Art had recently been promoted from a sales position, and had no formal business training. It was therefore incumbent on me to make sure he knew how to manage the meeting with Bill, and I failed abysmally. I didn’t explain to Art about the first four sentence laying out the non-negotiable fact that Bill was being placed on probation and that he needed to improve.

As a result, Art and Bill went down a rabbit hole and it took some time for Bill to come around to the fact that he needed to up his game. It likely took around 1/2 hour or so to finally get Bill committed to working differently, and then almost anti-climatically Art pushes a letter across the table at Bill and said something like, “so we’re going to put you on a performance improvement program”. Bill was stunned as he had himself convinced, with our help, that this was just a chit chat. We then had to repeat much of what had been covered, and re-convince Bill that this was in his interest. As an experience, the meeting was on par with having a tooth filled.

Had I equipped Art with the knowledge that he should start by saying something more like, “Bill, we’re concerned about your performance and we’d like to talk to you about a formal program to help you get back on track”, the meeting would have been half as long, and half as painful for all concerned.

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If you need help with people related issues, contact Brad for advice.