Many managers place firing at the top of their list of their most difficult responsibilities. While personally, I think lay-offs and telling someone they have an odor problem rank higher, it is true that terminating an employee will never be easy (regardless of how much they may deserve it).
That said, when it does come time to part ways with an employee, I’ve come to rely on a few key steps to make the process a little less intimidating. If you’re faced with letting someone on your team go, read on for what you need to know.
1. Avoid Surprises
The first and most important step in the firing process is to make sure your employee can see the train coming, long before it arrives. This is part of your job supervising your team. If your staff isn’t meeting your expectations, it’s your responsibility to let them know immediately—not months later. Many managers hesitate to do this out of the fear of micro-managing, but the truth is, when you have regular dialogue, you create an atmosphere of trust and respect where conversations about setbacks can also emphasize learning and growth.
So, sit down with your employee and give feedback on her performance. Be sure to frame setbacks in the context of how they disrupt the organization, the team, and her own goals for success. This way, the approach will feel less like a personal attack and more like a commitment to her professional development. In other words, help her identify her professional blind-spots, and suggest steps she can take to improve. In many cases, this will fix the problem before you have to go any further.
2. Make the Consequences Clear
Unfortunately, though, there are times when just giving feedback and direction won’t resolve the issue. At this stage, you probably need to bring in HR or your boss, let them know what’s going on, and see what your company’s protocol is. It will likely involve putting things in writing—either informally or via a formal company performance improvement plan.
In either case, you should clearly explain the performance issue, making sure to use specific examples and dates to back up your claims. Then, outline a roadmap for improvement, with clear next steps and milestones the employee should achieve.
Finally, you need to forewarn your employee that consequences are on the horizon if things don’t improve. Outline the consequences that may result for future under-performance, including termination—and be sure to follow through with them. Your employee needs to understand that you’re serious.
3. Have the Talk
If your prior efforts haven’t resolved the issue, it’s time to have the talk. By now, your employee should know this is coming. In fact, in some cases, I’ve had employees resign in anticipation of their termination. That said, sitting someone down to tell her you’re terminating her employment will never be easy, so here’s what you need to know when the day comes:
First off, arrange for your supervisor or another higher-level supervisor to be at the meeting as a supporter and witness. Also make sure you have all of your legal ducks in a row—you may need to have the person’s final paycheck ready, as well as be prepared to discuss things like severance and unemployment benefits.
Make yourself a script for the meeting so you stay on track, and rehearse it with your supervisor or HR manager beforehand. It’s OK to bring the script with you to the meeting—you can tell the (former) employee that you’re referring to notes so you cover all the important points.
During the meeting, explain to your employee, step by step, why she is being let go, and remind her of prior communications that threatened discharge. You need to stay collected and on-point, but you can allow her to emotionally vent if needed (having a box of tissues nearby isn’t a bad idea—just don’t place it front and center).
Keep it Private
Arrange for other staff to be away from the area at the time of the meeting—she’ll appreciate you not wanting her to be humiliated. Offer to schedule a later time for her to pick-up her personal belongings or arrange to have them shipped to her. And don’t involve security staff unless it’s your organization’s standard practice or if you have a valid safety concern.
Finally, thank your former employee for the positive contributions she’s made (but only if you really mean it). You don’t need to sugar coat the situation—remember that a persistent underperformer fires herself if you’ve clearly shown her the path to success. It’s natural to feel crummy as the bearer of bad news, but keep the situation in perspective.
And don’t ever tell someone you’re firing that this is as hard on you as it is her—believe me, it’s not.
Firing an employee will never be easy, but diligent preparation, open communication, and clear goals and consequences will help both you and your employee know what to expect, and hopefully add a little dignity to an otherwise ugly process.