Ask any manager what the least favorite part of their job is, and they’ll likely tell you it’s having to fire someone. It can be a gut-wrenching experience where emotions run high on both sides, and with no shortage of opportunities for going sideways.
Perhaps the person being fired has been slacking, has a serious attitude problem, clashes with their coworkers, or has ignored repeated efforts to help them change their behavior. On the other hand, it could be that the person is doing their best and is pleasant to work with, but just can’t seem to perform up to the standard of the role. In either case, the decision to fire someone really should be a last resort, once all other options have failed.
An emotionally intelligent manager will be attuned to these circumstances, and still do everything possible to minimize the pain and discomfort–not just for the person being let go but for the team left behind. That’s no easy balancing act, but it can be done. Here’s how.
There are many times when spontaneity is the best course of action, but this isn’t one of them. The more prepared you are, the less chance there is of things going off the rails. It doesn’t hurt to even mock up the language you’ll use in delivering the bad news. You’re likely going to be uncomfortable, so draw up a script and rehearse it (preferably with someone in HR) and practice until you’re familiar with it.
During the meeting with the person being terminated, emotions will run high, and you might be tempted to veer off from your planned remarks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing–you want to be humane and respectful–but you don’t want to negotiate; by the time you reach this point, the decision really is final.
Pick The Right Time And Place
Don’t even think of terminating an employee in any other way than in a face-to-face meeting. The person deserves at least this much. The other staff in the organization, who will inevitably find out what’s happened to their colleague, will lose respect for a manager who doesn’t have the courage or consideration to fire in person.
So think through the time and place of your meeting. A good time is when other staff are away or have gone home. Emotionally intelligent managers know to prepare for various levels of shock, anger, shame, or humiliation. What’s more, they need to see those reactions as normal, and leave room for emotions to play out. But that also means doing everything possible to prevent the terminated employee from rushing back to a full office and talking with all their coworkers immediately afterward. Give them, yourself, and their former colleagues some time and space.
Prepare Yourself Emotionally
Check your emotions before going into the meeting–don’t just rush right in and rip off the Band-Aid. At any point in your conversation, when you start to feel yourself giving into your rising emotions, stop and wait them out. Silently count to 10 or try to think of something else, but wait until you’re calm before speaking again. (Awkward silences during firing talks are better than most alternatives.) Another technique is push your feet firmly into the floor; this can help keep you centered.
Don’t Point Fingers
While your employee may have been totally responsible for bringing their firing upon themselves, going to that place will only make things worse. Simply state that things didn’t work out. And if you’re truly sorry, say so. But if not, simply say that you’re sorry that things didn’t work out, and leave it at that. Allow the person’s dignity to remain as intact as possible without being inauthentic or insincere in what you say.
Be Both Firm And Fair
This can be a fine line to walk. Summarize the main points regarding what led up to your decision, and then leave it there. Just be careful if you choose to do this; most U.S. employees are “at will” workers, meaning they can be fired for any reason or, technically, none at all. So if you provide a thorough rationale for firing someone, you may open your company up to legal liability, since the terminated employee can now challenge your grounds for firing them.
Whatever you do, make sure to be firm and to avoid rehashing the past or opening up new areas for discussion. This conversation’s purpose is to deliver information, not bartering or bickering. The best way to relay bad news as fairly as possible is simply to leave room for the person you’re letting go to express what they’re feeling. If the person is in shock and denial, just calmly repeat the message. Don’t get into a debate or defend your decision. You only need to make sure your message got through. If you’re encountering anger or grief, acknowledge those feelings but don’t get into further discussions. Keep moving forward and focus on the future.
Clear Up All the Details With As Much Sensitivity As Possible
Be prepared with all the details that are necessary upon termination, such as severance pay, unused vacation time, returning company property, end dates of benefits, and so on. Allow the person to clean up their belongings without their coworkers around–this can be an especially painful moment. If this isn’t feasible, though, set up a time as soon as possible to let them do this with as much privacy as you can arrange.
If the situation allows, offer to give a reference. And since the employee may be in shock, offer to call them a ride or taxi to get them home (but don’t take them yourself).
Firing somebody is a tense, difficult experience fraught with unpleasant feelings. Ultimately, the emotionally intelligent way to handle it isn’t to deny or cut off those feelings but to tune into and leave room for them–without losing sight of the task at hand.