#8 - How to fire an employee

The most difficult thing leaders must do.

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  • firing employees is hard: we constantly focus on building trust within our teams and then suddenly we have to break it for the benefit of the company

  • you can make termination talks easier by already having a proper structure in place for communicating expectations and giving feedback regularly

  • when you structure the conversation, consider that it's not really a conversation, it's more like an announcement followed by a Q&A

  • listen carefully to detect what emotions the news elicits with your employee; respond accordingly to which emotion is taking the lead

#8 - How to fire an employee

In my 10 years of being a manager I have hired more than 80 people and fired only 5. You can take an educated guess which of those conversations stuck with me most.

What makes these conversations so hard is that as a manager, you're constantly asking your team members to put their trust in you:

  • “trust me, this strategy will help us reach our goal”

  • “trust me, this is a great company to work for”

  • “trust me, this job will be good for your career”

Suddenly you have to break that trust for the benefit of the company.

As painful as firing an employee may be at the time, it's important to realise that leadership sometimes requires making a tough decision in order to move on to a more satisfying future for everyone involved.

Read along to find out what has helped me get the process right, or access the script I used to savagely fire myself on Wednesday this week.

#1 - The lead up to firing someone

The worst termination talks I've had have been those where my employee felt completely blindsided by the news I shared.

Although this might be unavoidable in some situations, I've found that it was usually a result of my own shortcoming in not having invested enough in a transparent process of goal-setting and feedback leading up the final step of letting them go.

If you're firing an employee because the performance isn't there, having invested time into the following actions will make a termination conversation easier:

  • you've invested in recurring one-on-one meetings and used these to make clear what your expectations are for their performance;

  • for new hires, you've set clear short-term expectations and goals that should be achieved within the 30-day probation period;

  • you've conducted honest performance appraisals during which you've acknowledged strengths and shortcomings in their performance.

If you don't do any of these things and decide, seemingly out of the blue, to fire someone on your team, you'll have a great recipe for an emotional clusterfuck.

Vice versa, your termination talk will be easier if you're able to fall back on those conversations by using phrases like: “as you know, Wytze, we’ve talked several times about quality problems in your work.”

#2 - Run your decision by a jury first

Over time I started involving my manager, my second-in-command and our HR manager early on in the decision-making process.

I have five reasons for doing so:

  1. As I present my argumentation, I check with them whether anything I've said could be viewed in a way that suggests that the real reason for the termination is not the individual’s performance but rather a shortcoming from my side.

  2. My HR manager helps advise me on personal circumstances I might be missing: is my employee close to a burnout? Is something happening in their personal life I should consider? Is their visa to stay in the country contingent on them keeping their job?

  3. My HR manager also prepares most of the necessary paperwork and will follow up with my employee on practical matters after the termination. I usually invite her to the conversation too, as I believe having a friendly more neutral face in the room can take the edge off of the confrontation.

  4. My second-in-command can help subtly answer questions or gauge sentiment among the remaining team members after the process is done.

  5. My manager will help justify to leadership why this course of action was taken.

#3 - Why you must do this conversation yourself

I was only 23 when I had to fire the first employee on my team and I was scared to shit of having to step into the room and have that talk.

I didn't sleep well during the two nights before and I eventually left home early after I had had the talk just to open a bottle of whiskey to bring my adrenaline down to a level lower than “defcon 1 - you're about to die”.

Boris, my manager, had kindly offered to do the conversation in my place to spare me the ordeal, but as tempting as it sounded I wanted to take my responsibility.

Years later, I now know why it's so important to do this conversation yourself.

Your team member might not remember every day they worked at the company, but they will definitely remember the day you laid them off. They will remember every last detail about that day and how you handled the details will matter greatly.

Your reputation, and that of the company, depend on you taking ownership for having this difficult talk.

#4 - How to schedule the meeting

Here's a nice puzzle for you. Ideally, you will want:

  1. a dedicated meeting for this, instead of handling it after an existing meeting;

  2. not to share what the meeting will be about;

  3. not raise any alarm-bells because of point 2;

I've found the easiest is to use one of your existing recurring one-on-one meetings for this conversation, and if necessary, bring it forward or backward in the calendar to the most suitable moment in the day or week.

I prefer 15:00 or 16:00 on any day but a Friday, because:

  1. if your employee feels like it, it offers them the possibility to say goodbye to the team before they've all gone home for the day;

  2. the rest of your team can use the remaining hours of the day to process the news without having to worry about having to be productive for a full day ahead;

  3. Friday makes for a very depressing way to enter the weekend instead of having a few weekdays for your employee to focus on what the next steps are for them.

#5 - How to structure the conversation

First of all, it's not really a conversation, it's more like an announcement followed by a Q&A.

You're communicating that the irrevocable decision has been made to let this person go. Therefore it's important you change your usual conversation structure:

  1. No small talk, get straight to the point — prepare a script and open with a sentence like “Hey Wytze, have a seat. I've got some bad news for you.”

  2. Keep it short, keep it honest — state the reason for termination in a maximum of 2 or 3 sentences. Assume that 80% of anything you say after that might not come across anymore as their mind starts racing to understand what's happening.

  3. Use decisive language & the past-tense — this decision had been made; you want to avoid getting into a debate about second chances.

  4. Stop talking after this part and listen — everyone responds differently to the news of losing their job (see point #5). After I've made clear that this is their last day at the company I'll ask if they understood what I've told them so I can get a sense of how they are taking the news and adapt my communication accordingly.

  5. You can elaborate during Q&A — you want your opening message to be clear and concise, but if your employee asks for clarification you can and should take the time to provide context during this phase of the conversation.

  6. Be specific about what will happen next — when is their final paycheck, how do they handover projects, how will you announce this to the team and what resources do they need to apply for unemployment support.

  7. Wrap it up as graciously as you can — which is a challenge in itself, I know. I usually end by suggesting that I can give them a call tomorrow to answer any further questions, that I can walk with them to collect their belongings and we can walk out together to say goodbye at the front door.

#5 - Try to avoid doing/saying these things

  • Avoid accidentally blaming your employee to justify your action i.e. “if you would have put in more hours, maybe you would have reached better results”.

  • Don't let your employee bait you into starting a discussion about whether or not a termination was justifiable. The decision is not up for debate.

  • It's fine to apologise for the situation, but don't apologise for your decision. As painful as it is for them, you stand behind the decision you've taken.

  • Try not to say: “I understand how you feel.” Because you don't. A better alternative is to label their emotions: “I can see this comes as a shock”.

  • As difficult as it is, try to stay human and show compassion. Offer them a glass of water, a tissue and listen to what they have to say.

#6 - How will your employee respond?

I've had conversations that seemed easier than having to cancel a gym membership, but then I've also had situations that turned into one big explosion of emotion.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the most predictable responses correspond to the emotions associated with a painful loss (ie. death): shock, denial, anger and grief.

Once you start listening for the response to your initial message, try to decipher for yourself whether one of these emotions has the upper hand. Best-selling author Dick Grote published this great overview in Harvard Business Review that gives you a good idea of how to adapt your communication according to the type of emotion you see.

#7 - Don't forget who you're doing this for

As a caring and compassionate manager, it's only natural that you feel a sense of regret about the pain you're having to inflict on your soon to be ex-employee.

Just keep in mind that postponing this challenging conversation often implies your other team members have to deal with a higher workload, more pressure or downright frustration about the fact that someone on the squad isn't performing.

You're doing this because it is your obligation to them.

After you've gone through the process of firing an employee, make sure to explain your decision to the team in a way that both clarifies why you think the course of action will benefit the team, while also respecting the privacy of your former employee.

Ultimately it will help you keep a strong and motivated team.