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Overcome a manager's biggest fear: Learn how to let someone go the right way

May 13, 2022 - 16 min read

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What does it mean to fire someone?

How to know when it's time to fire someone

4 wrong reasons to fire someone

How to fire someone nicely

What to say to the rest of your team

Moving forward

Being a manager is rewarding. 

You lead your team members to accomplish your business’ goals and help them grow as individual employees. 

But being a manager comes with its challenges, too. The responsibilities of a boss are wide, and not all of them are rewarding — including firing someone. 

Firing an employee isn’t easy. After all, as an empathetic leader, you likely know the impact a job loss might have on the individual. It can be emotionally and professionally difficult. You may wish that you could just learn how to fire someone nicely.

What does "nicely" mean in this situation? It means helping someone through a difficult moment in a way that doesn't destroy them, that preserves their dignity, and acknowledges their contributions. You probably hope they won't hate you afterward.   

For starters, maybe stop thinking of it as "firing." We don't advocate sugar-coating, but firing often is associated with a performance issue or some other negative behavior. Sometimes you really do have to fire someone — they are dishonest, toxic, or unmotivated.

More often, someone no longer fits the role they are in, and perhaps the organization no longer aligns with their skills, interests, and values. Maybe hte business has changed or budgets have been cut. The person may be kind and talented. They may be a friend, too — you’re sad to see them leave. Still, you know that as a manager, letting them go is the right decision for the team and business. 

As a boss, you need to learn how to fire someone nicely for your sake and for the individual. Discovering the best strategies on what to say when you let someone go can help you cope with the entire experience, too. If you care about your team members, firing someone will never be easy. You’ll be a better leader and business owner, though, when you can move productively through the stomach-drop feeling the next time you have to let someone go.


What does it mean to fire someone?

When you fire someone, you're ending your working relationship with that employee. You establish their last day, and after that, they don't work for your business anymore. Firing someone is also referred to as employee termination

Firing an employee is different than laying them off. Layoffs generally happen when job security is low. For example, a business could need to downsize temporarily (or permanently) and must suspend employees. This could be because of job insecurity issues like budget, relocation, or economic uncertainty. 

Layoffs are no fault of the employee, while a firing is usually the result of an employee underperforming or a violation of the company’s policy.

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How to know when it's time to fire someone

It may take some time to realize that you need to fire someone, or it could be clear because of a specific situation. You might have a termination meeting with the rest of your management team to discuss the employee in question. Or, you could make this decision all on your own but require support from your human resources department.

Always consult with your HR department if you believe you need to terminate an employee. In most cases, you should consult with HR as soon as you are seeing any worrisome indicators. Employment has legal aspects that you must be aware of to protect the employee, the company, and yourself.

Whatever your reason for firing an employee, you must articulate your reasons, first to yourself and HR and probably your own manager. Eventually you have to articulate the reasons to the terminated employee.

Here are four aspects to keep in mind if you think that it's time to fire someone:

1. Poor performance on the job

If your employee continuously isn't meeting the standards you set out for them and has performance issues with their work, it can cause you to fire them.

Even if you've offered performance management tactics like coaching or mentorship, they still might not be fit to carry out their tasks. Watch for how diligent they are with their duties and efforts to improve. You want them to bring extra value and better human capital to your company.

2. Not showing up to work

Your business needs reliable employees that show up to work. It's not an unreasonable requirement. With remote and hybrid work, your employee simply might fail to perform or executive on tasks. You might suspect they’re not virtually showing up for their job.

Since plenty of workplaces include remote work, solid communication between employees is crucial. You need employees who make their presence known on your team, whether that’s done in-person or virtually.

And, if someone fails to communicate where they are or why they aren’t taking care of their responsibilities, it can create more work for you.

If the employee doesn't have a good reason for missing work, like an emergency or an accident, it could be cause for termination.

3. Being untruthful

Dishonesty, whether it is lying or misreporting expenses or time, is unhealthy for any workplace. You want employees that you trust and believe. When an employee lies about anything — why they were late, why they failed to complete their work on time, or who is responsible for a mistake — it creates an untrustworthy working relationship.

If an employee has lied about their previous job experience, how they follow company policy, or even their age, it likely won’t help your business in the future.

4. Unacceptable misconduct

Some misconduct might be minor and may not warrant termination. But if it persists, you’ll need to evaluate how that misconduct then impacts the rest of your business. Minor misconducts can be a bad attitude, difficulty working with others, or not respecting company culture. 

More serious misconduct can be sexual harassment and racism towards other team members and criminal offenses, which definitely warrants termination. Without addressing, this behavior could spiral and help feed a hostile work environment.

As you pay attention to how your employees are working, it can be helpful to get support from outside your business. With BetterUp, a virtual coach can help you find perspective and guide you to develop a keen eye for developing and managing your team members.


4 wrong reasons to fire someone

As the boss, you need to know how to fire someone appropriately. To do that, you need to be aware of reasons that are unfair, discriminatory, and disrespectful.

Again, always talk to HR before making a decision or taking any action related to employment.

Take a read through some obvious reasons that you can’t use to justify firing someone:

  1. You have racial or religious differences.
  2. You're more interested in hiring someone from another gender or sexual orientation.
  3. The employee has a disability that feels difficult to accommodate or you don't want to make the accommodation.
  4. You have a friend or relative that you'd like to put in the role.

There are other reasons that aren't quite so obviously wrong but might not serve your team or organization well. Consider whether they need coaching to be more effective team members or whether you might need to broaden your perspective and develop your management skills to improve the situation.

These include: 

  • They frequently have a different perspective or approach from yours
  • They seem to like to disagree and question others
  • They have a lot of misunderstandings with others
  • They work too slowly (or quickly)

Consider the role of diversity training programs in your organization. Do managers have access to training and development opportunities? Do managers have access to resources like diversity and inclusion coaching?

With access to coaching and training, you can hopefully avoid these situations in the workplace. You can use this guide on how to terminate an employee, too. 


How to fire someone nicely

After identifying why you should fire an employee, it's time to do it. Of course, it can be nerve-wracking, but the best way to approach firing someone is to thoroughly prepare yourself. Planning will help you feel more confident in your decision and respect the employee.

Here are four tips on what to do when you have to fire someone:

1. Do it face-to-face

You want to set a professional example for your workplace. It's more respectful to have this meeting face-to-face rather than over the phone, email, or through text messages. If your workforce is still operating remotely, this likely would happen over a virtual meeting platform.

It's courteous to be present and visible while you fire them. You can also get your information and points across better when you're face-to-face with them so they can better understand.

2. Pick the right time and place

Nobody wants to be fired in front of the whole office. It's humiliating, and it can spark some heated reactions. It’ll likely damage the company’s rapport, too. 

Try to find a private place when both you and the employee aren't in the middle of everything to discuss it with them. When everyone is calm in a comfortable environment, the discussion is more likely to remain professional.

3. Be clear and firm with your decision

Clear, direct communication is key. It's best to get right to the point rather than avoiding the subject and opening with awkward small talk. If the terminated employee becomes upset and challenges your decision, you want to remain firm on your stance.

Be clear with your reasons for firing them and stick to them. Ensure that you're detailed enough so that the employee doesn't have any questions about their final paycheck, severance packages, or last day of work.

4. Practice what you're going to say

When you're firing someone, you shouldn't ad-lib the conversation. If you have specific points to cover, practicing ahead of time can help you figure out how to explain it all.

It can also help to ease your anxiety and nerves. An example of this may be to practice what you want to say to someone else to help you remember your words and set a good conversational pace.


What to say to the rest of your team

You can't hide the fact that you've fired someone from your team. Your employees will notice and will start to wonder why you've let an employee go if it wasn't abundantly clear. 

People will wonder and make assumptions. They may fear for their own job security. They may be relieved or angry.

Prepare yourself ahead of time to let the rest of your team members know about the news. When you're transparent, it helps your other employees understand how to improve and keep their jobs. 

Some team members might have questions about their performances, and it could be an excellent time to offer feedback and make better connections.


Moving forward

Your efforts to fire someone nicely won't go unnoticed. The rest of your team will see that you respect others enough to be kind in situations like this. Maybe the person you're firing won't see that in the exact moment, but you're trying your best to be considerate and not hurt their feelings.

Try to end the conversation on a high note. If they were a great person, provide your feedback and support in professional development ideas. You’d be helping them with their next job search. If you have any tips or professional insights to offer, bring them up too. Any bit of insight you offer will point them in a better direction as they look for another job.

These are hard decisions and difficult conversations. You will get more confident and develop better skills to help you, and your employees, in the future. It'll help you, in the long run, to be a more well-rounded boss and a more respectful person too.

Have any questions about your approach and wonder how you can improve? With BetterUp, you can work one-on-one with a coach to help guide your personal and professional development.

A coach can help you navigate this learning journey while also staying true to yourself. And in the end, you’ll build mental fitness to be better equipped to handle strategic moves in the future.

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Published May 13, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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