On the Clock

How to Fire Someone

Even in today’s fast-paced digital environment, old-school principles prevail.

Marla had been a manager at a small New York advertising company for less than a year when she had to fire Chris, one of her direct reports. It was the first time she had ever had to fire someone, and she was nervous. She arranged for a meeting. Chris came in and they had a lighthearted conversation about a client project for several minutes before Marla finally dropped the news.

Looking back, she regrets the way she delivered the termination. “It was really awkward to spend all that time talking like nothing was wrong,” she says. “I feel like it gave him the wrong impression about what was going to happen.”

At a time when more people are working remotely, the termination process hasn’t gotten any easier.

Indeed, terminating an employee is perhaps the most dreaded task for any manager. And at a time when more people are working remotely, the process hasn’t gotten any easier. Today, terminations can happen over video chat or even a phone call, though experts say the best route is still face-to-face. “It’s generally in everyone’s best interest to part ways by creating as little animosity as possible,” says Jennice Vilhauer, manager for Korn Ferry’s Search Assessment practice. Here’s how to handle the uncomfortable process in the best way possible.

Build your case.

In the US, all states are formally recognized as “at-will employment” states, meaning employees can be fired at any time, for any legal reason or for no reason. Illegal reasons for termination include discrimination and retaliation. As an employer, the general recommendation is that you build a case for an employee’s termination not only to protect the company, but to make sure that you did everything you could to help an employee try to improve before letting that person go. Document your interactions with the person and show that you’ve given him or her reasonable opportunities to change the outcome of the situation. Rarely should an individual be completely blindsided by the firing.

Steven Davis, a retired energy executive who spent more than 35 years as a manager at a large utilities company, says he sees firing someone as a last resort. “Being terminated can be a life-changing event for a person. You really want to be sure that you’ve explored every alternative,” he says.

Work out a plan with HR and IT.

It’s important to confer with your human resources department before you fire someone to understand the process for the person’s final paycheck, vacation payout, and benefits. Ideally, you also want to have someone from HR present during the termination itself to answer questions and keep the conversation on track. Managers also need to answer the IT part of the equation: When will the terminated individual’s company phone be collected? When will his or her email be shut off? In the case of a remote worker, those discussions are critical since the person may not be on company premises.

It’s also important to recognize the company’s rules around exiting. Many companies require all terminated individuals to be escorted out, no matter what the reason. “You don’t know how an employee is going to respond to being terminated,” says Dorene Crimi Lerner, an HR consultant at the human capital management firm Paychex. Other companies may only escort someone who committed fraud, and let someone who was terminated for poor performance walk out on his own.

Be empathetic, but professional.

The most difficult part of any firing is, of course, the conversation itself. As a manager, it’s up to you to decide when the conversation will happen. Consider the time of day: while some people feel that firing someone late Friday afternoon is the least disruptive option, others argue that doing it early in the day is better, because the person won’t have the whole weekend to stew, and can file for unemployment the next business day.

Many managers say it’s best to get to the point and avoid small talk before breaking the news. “Keep the discussion about specific behaviors that were not a fit for the organization and less about statements that define who the individual is,” Vilhauer says. One way to do that is to use phrases with “we,” as opposed to “I,” to remind the person that they are speaking in the best interests of the broader organization.

Above all, it’s important to show civility. While you don’t want to make it a drawn-out affair, you need to give the person a chance to speak. “Using empathy can help you recognize that every individual will handle the situation differently,” Vilhauer says. “Some people may wish to ask a lot of questions, while others may feel shell-shocked by the news and not be able to say much at all.”

In cases where you and the person have a personal friendship, it’s especially important to say things like, “It pains me to do this.” “From an etiquette perspective, do it with heart,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, a business etiquette coach. “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, because it could someday happen to you.”

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