For even the best leaders, nothing puts a knot in their stomachs like having to fire someone. Even when the employee deserves it, taking someone’s job away is among the hardest tasks any leader has to do.
First off, firing someone should bother you: It’s a sign that you have a heart and can have empathy for the people who work for you. After all, you’re about to upend someone’s world. Any boss worth their salt is both strong enough to conduct a firing, and human enough to understand how upsetting being fired can be.
But even knowing this doesn’t make it any less scary—but you can make a horrible situation a little bit less so by taking a few tips from some of my clients, experienced leaders who anguished over their first firing.
1. Stick to the Facts
As much as they wanted to make the firing a casual, personal conversation, most leaders report that when they tried that, it didn’t work. Your job is to inform the employee what’s happening, what they can (and should) expect, and why they’re losing their job. This will help them start the process of letting go and looking ahead.
Nothing makes this already tough conversation harder than a wishy-washy manager who is preoccupied with trying to cushion the landing. Saying something like, “We’re going to have to let you go for failure to meet minimum performance requirements” may feel harsh, but it’s a lot more honest and clear than saying, “I can tell you’ve really been trying to learn the job and I wished we were in a position to let you keep learning, but we’re going to have to make some changes that will impact you.”
Give the person credit for having a brain, and tell them what they need to know. If the roles were reversed, you’d want someone to tell it to you straight.
2. Remember That Feeling Guilty Doesn’t Mean You Are to Blame
You have made a decision that just disrupted someone’s life. Now, they’re going to have to do all the work associated with a job search. They’ll have to say goodbye to friends and deal with the feelings they have about being fired. It’ll be a change, and no one looks forward to any of these things, but all of these steps are tolerable.
You’re not to blame for them needing to take these steps . Your role was to be their boss and manage their performance. It was their responsibility to do their job and meet expectations. That part of the equation—whether they did or didn’t meet job requirements—is on them, not you.
Sometimes it’s your peers who’ll make you feel bad when they second-guess you with a statement like: “I had no idea you were having problems with her. She could’ve been a great asset in my department—if you’d told me.” Remember, opinions are a dime a dozen: You did what made the most sense for your team.
3. Know Your Relationship(s) Will Change the Moment You Fire Them
Be prepared to feel anger (and at the very least, disapproval) from the person you fire as well as from their friends or associates. And not just in the short term, but the long term as well—it’s very possible that you’ll run into this person in the future and he or she will not be excited to see you. But remember: Your goal shouldn’t be to be BFFs with your employees. It should be about earning their respect through fairness, honesty, competence, and consistency.
At the same time, you’re only human. And it’s hard to see an employee go through something difficult. But just like it isn’t your fault, it also isn’t your place to “solve” the problem. Staying calm—even in the face of an intense emotional reaction—isn’t just the professional thing to do, it’s also the most helpful.
Additionally, don’t try to make yourself look better by throwing others under the bus. Phrases like “It wasn’t my call…” or “If it were up to me…” just confuse people. (They don’t bring any additional comfort.) If you’re firing someone, own it. Losing your job is hard enough—being fired and not knowing who made the decision or why it happened is worse.
If you are accountable for the performance of others, it’s likely you’ll have to let someone go at some point. And yes, just about everyone who has been fired remembers that day; it’s locked in their memory. Treat the event and the person with humility, respect and compassion. You can’t predict or control exactly how the firing will affect someone else, but you can control how you act, and your measured approach can make it a less stressful experience for you both.