How to Fire Someone – Encouragement for Leaders

Firing people is one of the highest sources of stress that my owners and executives encounter. Let me remind you why firing people is necessary. Then I’ll include suggestions and comments from people who have been fired.

Firing an Employee Requires Having Courage on Behalf of the Team

Early in my professional career, I needed to fire a team member. I was insecure, questioned my decision-making, and worried that I was being mean. Hating conflict, I procrastinated as long as possible. I finally took an opening to tell her that we no longer needed her services. Over the next few days, every other team member thanked me. They told me that the employee had made them uncomfortable, didn’t work and always carried an attitude. I felt appropriately guilty, humbled, and regretful as I realized that my lack of courage had cost the team.

Great team members always pay the cost for the underperforming ones. Some of them will quietly move on, and you may never understand exactly why they left. The conversation that they WON’T say to you, but they have said to me is this: “I think you are nice. I wish you weren’t a pushover. Your lack of leadership makes my job more difficult. I like you and I like my role, but I may need to move on.”

Firing Bad Employees Reduces the Energy Drain to You and the Business

In addition to team dynamics, I always think about the business cost of keeping a bad employee. People often cite the U.S Department of Labor as noting that a bad hire can cost as much as 30% of the initial year’s salary. Because I specialize in human factors and the larger interplay between humans and business, I wonder about the ripple effect that a bad hire creates on longer-term business goals and gains. Sometimes, my clients and I spend hours working on how to handle a particularly difficult employee. Those hours could be spent focusing on forward momentum instead.

My clients, because they are good people, think about the firing impact to someone’s family. Will the employee be able to find another job? The employee is already distressed, and this decision may make it worse. The most difficult moral challenge that I’ve helped people through centers around employees who are dealing with chronic illnesses or have family members dealing with chronic illnesses. Because there are no black and white answers, my clients struggle with the tension between managing business/departmental goals and their personal integrity.

Clients often under-estimate the emotional drain of coping with the whole situation. One of my clients fired a problematic employee. Two weeks later, a pile of additional stressors came onto his plate. I expected him to be additionally stressed and dove in to help. Then he said, “Tricia, I’m actually feeling good.” I was shocked and asked how that was possible. “I didn’t realize how stressed out I was about the employee. I feel like this huge burden was lifted off of my back.” The stress of one employee was greater than multiple, larger stressors combined.

Tips to Help You Through the Process

 1. There will never be a right time. The most common sentence I’ve heard is –“I should have done it sooner.” Get it over with so that you and the team can move forward.

 2. Get to the point. Tell the employee what is happening immediately, but allow time for additional conversation if the employee is rational.

 3. Add a statement that is kind. Here are positive statements from my clients who have been fired:

          “It sucked, but I could tell that he cared.”

“I’m upset, but she told me that I _____” (some type of compliment or hope)

“I could tell that s/he didn’t really want to do it. It is still bad, but that helped.”

 One of the statements I try to live my life by is that people will forget what you said, but they will remember the way you made them feel. Your caring translates. It leaves a person’s ego intact. It also protects your reputation.

  4. If an employee has been especially difficult or irrational, fire with another person present. Document. Quarantine  his/her access to any information immediately. This is standard procedure in larger corporations for all employees. It protects the organization and the other people present.

 5. If appropriate, talk to the employee about future opportunities elsewhere and areas of growth. One of my friends is very good at firing people with kindness. He makes sure they understand the problem, why he is firing them, and then talks about their future. Sometimes they actually thank him for firing them.

 6. Debrief with someone you trust. This process is emotionally exhausting. Give yourself a bit of kindness and grace afterwards.

 7. You already know most of what you just read, don’t you? Go do it. You’ve got this. It is your responsibility as a leader, and I know that you have the strength to do it.

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