How to Fire Someone

January 17, 2019

First, why? Are you angry with them? Are they not doing what you requested? Really think about the reason. There are good reasons to fire someone (e.g. sexual harassment), but most other issues and even patterns often trace back to a fixable problem. Not always, but you should honestly try.

The best managers don’t fire, they fix. Is the person demotivated? If so, why? Do they need assistance or training? Simply saying that the person is just bad isn’t a sufficient reason to fire them. Good managers motivate, help, and enable people to be better than they’ve been before. They bring others in if they can’t do it themselves. Sometimes employees need to be micromanaged (only for a limited time). Other times, there is an issue that is completely outside of work. Try to get to the root of the problem and figure out how to ameliorate it, or at least isolate it. Talk to them and really listen. Don’t waver from the issue(s) needing to be fixed, but genuinely be the person’s best advocate no matter how miserable they’re making your life.

Maybe it is even the manager that is the problem. Really get to the heart of the issue before you start the termination process. Enlist others in your cause to save the person’s job. Assume that the burden is on you and that you can get the employee to solve whatever the issue is if you know the primary cause. You are a good manager after all. Give them a real extra lifeline and even jump in an attempt to save them.

There is another reason for doing this. In the weeks or maybe even a month that the process takes (not more), by enlisting others you’ll bring everyone on board to your cause. Sometimes you need to terminate an employee who has poor performance, is toxic, or has a bad attitude. Sometimes you even need to set an example. By trying to fix the core problem first, you will shine a spotlight on the person and everyone will see that you are making an effort to help your employee. This allows your team and others to see that you are fair, which will help you retain a high level of trust in trying times. It will also give you the support you need within the organization if you end up having to terminate. You will also avoid the reputation as being the manager that fires everyone at the first sign of weakness.

Likewise, this time and effort will also allow you to utilize a proper HR process. In larger companies this will include a mandatory performance improvement plan (PIP), which should always be done in smaller companies as well. A PIP lets the person know what the problem is and what they need to do to fix the issue or pattern. It wouldn’t be fair to fire someone for something they didn’t know they were doing and didn’t know they needed to fix, would it? This also provides documentation should they file a lawsuit later.

Once the PIP is in place, you must actually help them regain their peak performance. Give them the path to success and genuinely help them down it. Be a good mentor and manager. You must be able to treat them like a friend even though they are making your life difficult and causing you much anguish. Separating your personal feelings from your professional obligations is the hardest part.

So, why all this wind-up? The title of this article is how to fire someone isn’t it? There are two reasons. First, replacing someone is very costly, and not just in terms of time and money. If you fire employees in an improper fashion you will lose the respect of those around you. Word will get back to other employees, lowering trust and morale. You want everyone to implicitly know that you did everything you could and more for even the worst performer on your team. Second, you are dealing with another human being. At the end of the day this is their job, although it may be your problem. Getting fired can really destroy a person. Remember that managers must be human to lead effectively.

So, now the PIP has been running for a few weeks. You’ve gotten others involved to try to help the person, like your manager, a more senior peer of theirs, someone from HR, or maybe even a peer of yours. If you can see they are playing you or the system, don’t wait to terminate them. Gain consensus with others, but do it fast and painlessly.

However, if the employee is making a concerted effort, you need to make sure they are progressing in the right direction. Give them support, feedback, and above all else, be positive. Don’t ever promise them future employment, but make sure they know that you are on their side and that the team is rooting for them. They need to know that they can get through it and the company wants them to succeed.

There are two extremely important reasons for this. First, you really do want them to succeed. Imagine if they do! Rehabilitating a problem employee is a huge win for you and the company. Second, if they don’t succeed, they will be less likely to be disgruntled if they believe that you were on their side. You want to be the last person to give up. This is critical.

In California, anyone can sue anyone at any time for anything. They don’t have to be right, but it costs a lot of money to defend a lawsuit and even more to settle one if there’s even the appearance of a granule of truth in a person’s claim. Many other localities aren’t quite this bad, but wrongful termination lawsuits and complaints are an issue for businesses everywhere.

Who are these people who cause problems for their former employers? Is it someone who felt that they were treated fairly and got every chance, and likes the people they worked with and reported to? Or do these people feel disrespected and that someone else caused their misery? You want the person to feel liked and respected, while knowing that they were treated equitably. Keeping a PIP going for 30 days and helping them succeed will usually make all the difference, even if at the end of the period they fail.

Always make sure that a PIP does not guarantee that they will have a set amount of time to fix the issue. Don’t guarantee them a month, unless you are legally or rule-bound to provide them such a time period. Communicate that you will give them time to fix the issue, as long as they are trying and making progress. Again, if everyone involved feels that they are just stretching it out and not trying, terminate quickly.

So, now you’ve honestly tried and you’ve really been on their side for weeks now. There’s no change to their bad habits and they are still toxic, or missing deadlines, or they aren’t really trying. Everyone sees that you’ve made real efforts to help them, so they all want you to fire the person. Most importantly, you are sure that the person knows it is coming. Now it is time to terminate them.

First, telegraph the impending event, but don’t give them a lot of advanced warning and make sure they respond. Don’t mention it to any of their peers, unless it is absolutely necessary. Ask them to bring their laptop, phone, and any other company property to the office. Plan a meeting in a neutral room at the beginning of the day. It should not be in your office, but rather a private conference room where others cannot see. If no conference room is available, then use someone else’s office. You don’t want them to have any reason to focus on you more than they already will be, and they should not feel the firing was done publicly. If the person is not in the office, you can go to them. You want to be careful to make sure that they do not do damage on the way out (especially if they are toxic), so control their exit.

The termination should always have two people in the room. The other person should be the opposite sex of the manager to prevent accusations, even if you are the same as the person being terminated. Never say sorry, as you aren’t. At best saying sorry is disingenuous and at worst it makes them feel that the termination is not justified, which has the potential to give rise to a lawsuit.

You have two goals in this meeting, and failure at one is a failure of the whole process which could have severe ramifications. First, make sure they feel liked and respected. Second, make sure they know that they no longer work there and why they have been let go. Be succinct and clear. The whole process should take 5–10 minutes, excluding the HR exit process that happens after. Don’t engage them in an argument or allow them to bait you into making a mistake.

Clearly lay out the reasons that this is happening, what the company did to help them fix it, and make sure that your feelings or frustrations are completely divorced from the discussion. This is all about their relationship with the company ending, not your personal feelings. You want to be positive and help them move on. If there are things you can offer to aid them going forward, you should do so. A little severance doesn’t really cost much and goes a long ways in placating parting employees. If the company has any benefits they can take advantage of (e.g. extension of health insurance or job training), make sure they are explained, preferably by HR if possible.

Try to make the termination be classified for a reason other than “for cause” and explain this to them. “For cause” is a term of art that means they did something really egregious, as opposed to the company no longer requiring their services or them no longer being a match. Reserve “for cause” for cases like embezzlement and clear sexual harassment. Talk about how they just aren’t a fit or aren’t a match for the company, but that there are lots of jobs out there that they’ll be succeed at. Be as positive as possible.

You have be firm and make sure they know there are no more chances (i.e. they really are terminated) and that the reasons for the termination are valid, fair, and justified. You can be relieved when they are gone (that is a separate and valid feeling), but you have to genuinely demonstrate you like or respect them. No one else can do this for you, and in many circumstances your success at this last piece can be the difference between them filing a lawsuit or a complaint and them walking away feeling alright about the whole process. This will be one of the hardest things you ever have to do as a manager.

Don’t feel the need explain yourself or your feelings, and above all else, do not allow any negative thoughts to enter into the conversation. Steer them away from negative talk as well. This is a chance for a new beginning for them. You’ll be nervous, especially the first few times you have to terminate someone. Don’t be afraid to bring someone more experienced along if you need assistance. Three people from the company in the room is the maximum and two is better. Don’t hesitate to practice with someone who has done this before in order to build confidence.

If done properly, it is more stressful for the person doing the termination than the person being fired. I have never had a termination that didn’t weigh on my mind, and I vividly remember every single one I’ve ever done, even 25 years later.

Once you are done, write down what happened in the termination, and provide a copy to HR. It can be email, but make sure you document everything.

Good luck.

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